Agnosticism is an acceptance of the idea that one cannot believe what is impossible to know. An agnostic separates him/herself from what is unknown and says, “If I can’t know it, I can’t believe it.” A true contemplative is an agnostic who adheres to what he/she does not know. The contemplative says, ‘my inability to know is a fact but it does not render untrue what I do not know.’
To not be able to know that which is, is a fault in me – not in that which is. Herein lies the acceptance or rejection of the life of the spirit.Herein is the crux of faith. You did not ask us to understand, but to believe. How many times You recognized and singled out great faith and belief in those around You. It is likewise true of love that it demands not understanding but trust, forgiveness, and acceptance.
It would seem that what matters most are things not of the head but of the heart. You knew in Your own time and You know now what humans are incapable of knowing. You did not emphasize that flaw in us but rather became, at times, almost impatient with our penchant for pursuing knowledge rather than cultivating the acceptance and belief that were at the heart of Your message. The worlds of known facts and unknown beliefs are light years apart – and belief is all You seek. Our capacity to know is limited, but our capacity to believe is boundless. It may be that we hinder ourselves with the pursuit of complex knowledge and understanding when simple acceptance, trust, and belief is all that You ask.
The highest form of knowledge is knowledge of God. We know that our lives are a constant search for one kind of knowledge or another. When we learn something, it adds to us. We share new knowledge with others and our sharing enriches them just as we are enriched by knowledge we obtain from others. Books, dialogue, TV, classes, the internet, and prayer are all sources from which we seek and obtain new knowledge.
Yesterday I became a grandpa again. Expectation, delivery, and the beautiful face of the new baby were, in themselves, sources of new knowledge about life, its meaning, and its possibilities. This, and all knowledge, seems to point us in a single direction. The restlessness that prompts our searches for new knowledge never ceases until we rest in the source of all knowledge. In that sense it is quite true that the highest form of knowledge is knowledge about the source of all knowledge. Beyond that knowledge there exists nothing but non-subsistent truth. When we have that, all efforts to know are superfluous. But while we are in this human shell we will always want more knowledge.
Adam and Eve wanted to know more about good and evil and they got their wish. We have consequently inherited their curiosity. Like theirs, it sometimes leads us to places far from the truth. Yet, the greatest saints who ever lived were driven by it. We want to know, we seek to know, we must know. This subtle imperative moves me to search out, in every corner of life, manifestations of the truth.
How many times at Mass do we say and hear, “The Lord be with You?” How many times do we consider its meaning? And why is its meaning so intimately connected with the liturgies of The Word and The Eucharist?
The Mass is a moment of the divine plunked in the middle of the trivial, selfish, and often meaningless motions of the day. It is, itself, a reminder that God is with us and, therefore, a vehicle within which it is most apropos to not only remind others of this fact but to wish it for them and consider it in regards to ourselves. It runs like a thread through the Mass because it is not only what the Mass is about (God being with us) but also what our life on this planet is about.
At the beginning of Mass, before the penitential rite, the celebrant says “The Lord be with you.” It is a wish and also a statement that might be voiced as ‘The Lord is with you.’ We consider our faults and our failings only after we are reminded that God is with us. He loves us, forgives us, and remains with us.
Before the gospel we again hear, “The Lord be with you,” as if to prepare for hearing the word of God by reminding us that this another way He is with us.
At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist it is most fitting that these words are heard again. For most of us the Eucharist is the ultimate sign that God is with us. We bring ourselves to the celebration to be with God and to experience His being with us. God not only loves us, forgives us, teaches us, and guides us but gives Himself totally to us eternally through the body and blood of His Son.
Finally, at the end of Mass, it is heard one last time as the congregation is dismissed. The importance of this last one is that it reminds us that God is not just with us here but also for the rest of the day away from here, and that we might carry Him with us so that the Lord, through us, can be with others.
Someplace else in my letters to You I talked about how much the mornings mean to me; how close I feel to You through morning prayers, Mass and communion, and then coming home to this chair in this quiet little room and reading about You and writing to You. It’s a separate world and I love it. But I live the rest of the day in a world apart from this room and this chair. I am not always so enamored of the rest of the day as I am of the mornings.
It strikes me that there ought to be some kind of nexus between these two daily worlds – a nexus that I have yet to fully grasp. More and more I have come to regard the act of sitting down in my chair, which I look upon as the lap of God, as the welcome entry into a world wonderfully better and more desirable than the world apart from that chair. It offers a peacefulness and light that the mundane does not. Yet, the quantity of time I spend with You in the mornings is small compared to the rest of the hours of the day. What I would like to learn how to do is sustain the peaceful closeness to You I feel in the mornings throughout whatever I’m doing the rest of the day.
I do think that in ways I’m not always conscious of, the mornings color parts of the rest of my day. Things pop up that sustain in action the meditations of the morning. However, I think what I’m looking for is a reliable consciousness of a spirit emanating from the morning that pervades all the rest of my day in a steady manner. This never seems to really happen, and maybe it never will. But I count it as a failing on my part and, therefore, something to be worked on and perfected. There is always some aspect of the spirit of the morning that I want to sustain through the day but which inevitably peters out, or is vaguely ignored, or pushed aside by other things. I simply don’t feel it’s enough to have the intention to maintain the spirit of the morning throughout the day. The fact that it’s so difficult, even with the intention, shows me how far I still am from You and how much more I have to do,
Upon reflection, it would seem that scripture bears out the contention that God’s intervention in the affairs of man has usually been filtered through the disenfranchised, the poor, and the weak. In the Old Testament culture of the chosen people the first-born son was the ranking heir-apparent, yet the righteous and humble Abel was second. David, the shepherd king was eighth-born, and the doted-upon Joseph with his coat of many colors was twelfth born. In the New Testament the 12 apostles are all common men of lower estate – mostly fishermen. In more recent time the Lives of the Saints is filled with a majority of “lower class” individuals who, if not actually poor, were not notable in the world’s terms by birth or fame. These people down through history seem to be the ones who have defined for us Your relationship with man.
There have been those who, examining history, have said that the notions of God and religion and all things spiritual have arisen to fill the needs of those whose needs are greatest. This is often spoken as an indictment – an exposition of the directions in which the breezes of ignorance bend us. Such a “spin” on the matter manipulates the truth. When we are the emptiest in every respect, You can find space to fill us. In this respect these commentators are correct when they say God, religion, and spirituality arise from the neediest. But what they miss is that the needy themselves don’t create it, You do – because in them You can. The lesson seems apparent: those richest in money, status, and power have by their own admission few needs – certainly less need for a God who wants to come to them if they divest to make Him room. The truth that religion is the opiate of the working class and the poor suffers only from the use of the term “opiate.” Others must realize that they are less “drugged’ than they are loved.
To be among the blessed poor in spirit one may indeed have to know something of socio-economic poverty. Money, status, and power do not seem tobe fertile seeds in the soil of a spiritual garden. Where there is something lacking, or where there is loss in a person there seems to be more room for You.
Where do You meet me or I meet You on a daily basis? Or do we even meet regularly? You always know where to look for me, but do I know where to look for You? Surely I meet You in these letters and in praying, but these letters and my prayers are extensions of where I really meet You each day – in my needs. It is in my needs that You appear to me. And how is it that You manifest Yourself? The answer is simple and easily overlooked, especially in those times when I am mostly concerned with myself. The answer is – in others!
In this life it is by other people that our needs are met. You work in this world through the instrumentality of other people. If I am open to it, You appear to me in them. This is the way You choose to manifest Yourself to me. In fact, I’m thinking that if I miss this I’m missing Your primary action in my life. I do feel that You touch me in prayer and in these letters but I’m thinking that relying solely on these prevents me from being fully aware of the primary sources of communications with You – other people!
Sometimes sitting in a congregation at Mass I look around at the backs of peoples heads and think, ‘He/she is a copy of an awful lot of the same things I think and experience in relationship with You. And he/she is loved and visited equally by Your Spirit.’ This kind of thinking downplays my uniqueness and emphasizes my common bonds with humanity. It makes me realize that, at its root, we are all seekers and that You touch each of us in special ways – not the least of which is the gift of recognizing in others this common seeking. Yes, we bring our own individuality, but that to which we bring it is very much in common with others. Liked and disliked personality traits aside, other people more often than not mirror some of the same images of how I meet You and You meet me.
As we make our life’s journey it’s such a delight to have something pop out at us from monotonously familiar ground. I bet we miss a great deal in life simply because we don’t look closer at the ground we’ve been over.
Scores of times I have heard the story of You and the blind Bartimaeus; but have I really listened to it? This time, unlike any time before, I am riveted by Your words: “What do you want me to do for you?” No miracle You performed was an isolated incident. Each was a teaching for the ages and an insight into God’s relationship with man. This relationship, from our birth to our death, is our rapprochement to Your continually asked question: “What do you want me to do for you?” In this question is a summary of the whole history of God and man as it proceeds from the divine will. Our answers characterize our relationship with You; for You constantly in our daily lives ask us: “What do you want me to do for you?” And You wait for our answer.
If we consider the possibilities of our answers, in all seriousness, an amazing thing happens: we want You to do for us what You are already doing, what You always have done, and what we believe You always will do – love us and draw us to Yourself. The answers are in our restless hearts which yearn to rest in You.
“Lord, that I might see,” was Bartimaeus’s answer. Did he, as we are accustomed to imagine, mean his physical sense of sight or did he mean to be truly enlightened in a way beyond physical sight? Both were within Your power and maybe it was both he meant, and You granted him.
In another place, at another time, You were in a crowd and You asked another question full of deeper meaning: “Who touched me?” This question, like the one to Bartimaeus, may not have really meant to pertain to one of the five senses. It may not be at all about a tactile stimulus and where it came from. As the disciples pointed out, in such a crowd how could such a question be asked? But that may not be what You meant. It was the belief, hope, and need of that woman that touched Your heart and tapped Your grace. In the same way, among the crowds of mankind, You look for and await someone to “touch” You, and You will say: “What do you want me to do for you?”
When I was a small boy I harbored terrifying anxieties about the end of the world. In those days the gospel admonition that one will be taken and one left seemed immanent. There was the reality of Communism, the cold war, and nuclear holocaust. Looming large was apprehension over the year 1960, when the third and final message of Fatima would be revealed. Days of darkness, major wars, and natural disasters seemed certain messages as to what was to come.
Looking back, I feared both that God’s other foot would drop and/or that man would destroy himself. Decades later, as I write this, I am even more convinced that man will be the instrument of his own end. After all, the world of the Garden of Eden was destroyed by man. Why should we think he will not destroy the current world – the world of our “second chance?”
And yet, maybe the whole idea of the end of the world draws too much on its physical and material demise. Maybe the end of the world is an end to a particular era of human history. We closed the book on the Garden of Eden. Maybe the Christian Era is about to end, or at least as we know it and have shaped it. Just maybe in the evolution of our relationship with You we have so bungled Your message, Your Good News, that to get where You’d want us to be another new beginning is necessary. Maybe the reign of God as we know it is undergoing a metamorphosis from the exterior to the interior life – maybe that’s the way it was always meant to be. In order for this to happen a lot of our world must end.
The Flood in Noah’s time was the end of the world for all but a few to whom it was left to make a new beginning to, so to speak, get on track again. One powerful dictator in the last century nearly brought the end of the world to all Jews. We suffer individual ends of the world when everything is taken from us and we are destitute and the only solution is to make a new beginning. Maybe the point we miss most is that all the ends of the world we might experience are really about new beginnings.
If there is any one subject I’ve written to You about more than any other, it’s self – self as the most adamant barrier to growth.
Bernadette Roberts has written some wonderfully insightful (though at times dense) expositions of the self. She extols the falling away of the conscious self as the direct path to contemplative unity. One of the subtlest and most insidious hazards on this path is the subjective projection of one’s personal interpretations upon all mankind. To generalize spirituality from one’s own narrow stance is tempting – and hazardous. One difficult consideration that I fear trips me up continually is my taken-for-granted attitude of a common journey. Yes, we have our humanity in common but one’s spiritual journey is never exactly the same as another’s.
In everything I’ve written to You is detailed my own personal spiritual trip. Since nobody else’s is the same, the self I bring to it is not the self of another. But making the assumption that it is, is so easy! It’s not only easy, it’s incorrect. Yet what is it about being in the midst of spiritual pursuits that compels us to share the steps of our path with another with whom they are probably irrelevant?
We witness ourselves, and as witnesses we must testify. Our sharing is a testimony to the fact that God acts in us and through us. He is really there. His whisper is truly audible. His face truly discernable. Like John in the introduction tohis gospel, we are all witnesses here to testify to God’s action in us. Naturally our testimony is subjective – how can it be otherwise? And so the self we exhaust ourselves trying to shed seems instrumental to the spirituality of one being while nearly meaningless to another. This uniqueness is predicated upon the so-called “false-self,” the self we create for ourselves. The “true-self” at the center of our being may extend less to uniqueness and more to commonality; nonetheless it is the false-self though which we slog.
We do try to stereotype people and fit them into pigeonholes of our own imaginings, but the best method is to take others where they’re at.
When we communicate with each other we use various feelings, tastes, and events as common ground, but the feelings, tastes, and events change because each person is different. That’s also the way You meet us – where we’re at! You met St. Peter differently than You met St. Paul, or St. Augustine, or St. Francis – or me. You take into consideration where each is at.
I like my family. I like jazz, fishing, and cigars. I like swimming in the summer. I like silent seclusion. I like the outdoors and beautiful natural scenery. I like people who don’t just think of themselves. I like dogs. I like chili, ribs, and spaghetti made only by my wife. I like chocolate, playing drums, and writing these letters to You. I like the season of autumn. I like movies and sports on TV, etc., etc. The point is, all these “likes” make You have to meet me in a unique way. While none of these proclivities defines my being they do shape where I’m at – where I need to be met.
My consideration for others should be along the same lines for nobody is exactly at the same point as me. Nobody puts forward exactly the same proportion of feelings, tastes, and events as I do. So why is it so hard to take this into consideration? It stunts our growth in love when we don’t accept where others are and love them right there at that point.There are times when where we’re at butts up against where another is and the barrier seems impenetrable, but so often the ability to meet and love another breaks down the barrier if we just consider where they’re at.
Lord, give me the courage, grace, strength and help I need to overcome myself to meet others where they’re at.