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Part I: Languages of belief
Part II: Survival faith and practice
Part III: “Someone should start laughing”

“Someone should start laughing”

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

How are you?

I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:

What is God?

If you think that Truth can be known
From words,

If you think that the Sun and the Ocean

Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,

O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly
Laughing—Now!

Hafiz i-Shirazi,
in I Heard God Laughing,
rendered by Daniel Ladinsky

Whenever anyone asks my spouse Jim if he believes in reincarnation, his droll response is: “Not in this lifetime.”

It is tempting to use that response as my answer to the title question of this three-part series. Tempting, first of all, because it approaches the question with laughter. Second, because it is confessional: it says merely that nontheism is not the language of my heart, not the language with which I presently describe to myself what sustains me in my interaction with Life. Third, because it is not prescriptive: it leaves the door open for other options.

Nontheist options: One of those options is the nontheism of empirical science and, more specifically, that of the research into the neurobiology of consciousness about which I have written in other posts (here and here, for example).

It doesn’t confound me to be told that what I experience as the “self” is what Antonio Damasio calls “a perpetually re-created neurobiological state,” a higher order construct maintained by the brain as a framework upon which to organize its neural representations of what the senses perceive (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, pp. 99-100). Knowing how complex and powerful the workings of human consciousness are, I don’t feel that this empirical description diminishes me.

Another option is the curiously analogous nontheism of Buddhism. Here, too, though couched in a very different language than that of Western science, is that core recognition that the “self” is a transient, ever-changing construct. That what is Real is not so much the perceiver as the flow of things perceived.

Both of these models of consciousness have helped me in recent years, as I settle into a more mature way of walking through mortal existence. It is useful to be able to stop, take a breath, and say to myself, “Ah, this is simply the present moment, and all of these insistent thoughts and feelings are simply this organism’s efforts to interpret and respond to the moment.” Such poise is helpful, whenever I can relax into it.

Private shuddering: Yet there is something else of conscious experience which I miss in these models.

In his richly insightful Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter 2007) article, “The Democratic Dilemma,” Todd Shy contrasts the approach to liberal morality of Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, with the current approaches of Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner. The passage which resonates most strongly for me is this one:

Wallis’s God is the champion of justice and the defender of the poor, but there is nothing about him as compelling as the elusiveness, say, of Luther’s God, or the inscrutability of Job’s. His God is not a God who hides; his Jesus is never bewildering.

Wallis offers us the clarion morality of the prophets, but not the shifting range of Old Testament experience. The bound child is pulled away from harm, but no knife has been raised by the godly over the ropes. Biblical writers grope to understand a difficult Creator; Wallis seems content with what he knows.

In the end, religion, like our other deep experiences, is disturbing, unsettling, even as it irresistibly holds our devotion. Liberals like Wallis need to engage us on the level of our private shuddering in order to energize our public commitments. After all, the success of religious conservatives is not the raw manipulation of an issue like abortion, but rather the education of congregations to see God as a being who would revolt at the abortion of a fetus.

The portrait of God is all. The rest is just elaboration, which is why Augustine’s famous quip, love God and do whatever you want, makes utter sense to the religious conservative, who wouldn’t dream of intentionally abusing it, precisely as Augustine knew. (p.70)

“On the level of our private shuddering.” That phrase pierces to the heart of our collective dilemma over the marriage of belief and action.

Wherever we are on the spectrum of belief, what we tell ourselves we believe—or disbelieve—can both drive and constrain our actions. Yet on the level of our private shuddering, a level at once more visceral and more spiritual than belief, something else drives and constrains us.

At its best, we do not know rationally yet are still convinced—on the level of our private shuddering—that whatever drives and constrains us is Something Else which is larger than any one or several of us.

Or at least we hope for that.

Belief versus faith: I know I confess to both shuddering and hope in the tales on Walhydra’s Porch. Though emotionally challenging, it is ultimately easier for me to give voice to both on that blog, simply because the intent there is storytelling.

Here on The Empty Path, where the intent is rational discussion, such topics are much more difficult to address. Reason insists upon the sort of precise correspondence between words and their denotations which is impossible in the realm of the Spirit. That realm demands poetry.

Part of what helps me is the distinction I make between belief and faith. Belief focuses on statements; faith, on actions. These are not mutually exclusive categories, yet I don’t need to have worked out a definitive statement of belief in order to live moment by moment on faith.

But what in the world am I talking about?

Survival faith and practice: In Part II, I wrote that “the challenges of the past decade have increasingly imposed upon me a different sort of spiritual economy,” what I call “survival faith and practice.”

I coined that phrase last October, well into the clinical depression which had been sneaking up on me since at least a year earlier.

As the Walhydra stories linked here relate, September of 2006 was when I first admitted to myself that my brilliant, compassionate mother was probably slipping into Alzheimer’s dementia (“In which Walhydra reconsiders“).

By March of last year, my sister and brother and I knew it was no longer safe for Mom to live alone, and we moved her to my sister’s home in Pensacola (“Which next thing?“). By June, Mom’s obvious decline was confounding me with grief, even while I struggled with anxiety over handling her legal matters and finances and the need to sell her home from 300 miles away (“Walhydra’s sadness“).

Shortly after I published Part II, I began the strange adventure—doubly strange for a former clinical counselor—of using anti-depressants and short-term therapy to climb back out of the depths (“Walhydra’s year of becoming mortal” and “Is it Spring yet?“).

Sharing this personal context is essential to demonstrating what I mean about faith.

Spiritual discipline: As my depression deepened over the past year, both practical and emotional necessity drove me to seek a more intense focus for my spiritual discipline. As I tell it in “Walhydra’s year of becoming mortal,”

[Walhydra] finally recognized just how much of her energy and concentration it was taking each day to tightrope walk with equanimity between anxiety and despair.

“Hell!” Walhydra says. “It’s taking concentration just to make myself get out of bed in the morning…let alone do tai chi foundations, sitting meditation, bike riding, prayer, breakfast, or any of those other things which might nudge me toward wanting to do another day.”

Eventually, I saw the depression for what it was. Describing the deaths of father-in-law and friends and the decline of my elderly parents, I wrote:

This is not just temperament, or circumstance. This is Walhydra’s own personal version of what every human being faces: death and the certainty of death.

It’s enough to make one want to be beyond feeling.

And that, Walhydra now realizes, is what she has actually been working on in her haphazard morning rituals over the past year: trying to be “beyond feeling.”

She hasn’t been denying causes of grief or fear, yet she’s been trying to avoid the slippery slope of melancholia. In the process, her brain has done what that organ knows how to do: suppress its own chemistry until Walhydra was deep in depression.

Applied nontheism: In my desperate efforts to regain stability (at least momentary) before I began taking anti-depressants, and in my much more successful efforts since, I can observe the combined application of those two nontheisms I described earlier.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (aka SSRI anti-depressants) help the brain to reestablish neurochemical homeostasis, so that disturbances from the environment or from imagination do not disable thinking and choice with emotional reactions which are way out of scale. There (grossly oversimplified) is the nontheism of neurobiology.

Taoist tai chi practice, zazen meditation and the disciplines of prayer I’ve learned from Quaker silent worship help consciousness to observe and let go of the flow of thoughts and feelings, without needing to react to or act upon any of them. There (grossly oversimplified) is the nontheism of Buddhism.

I can and do rely upon a discipline of mindfulness informed by both neurobiology and Buddhist psychology, whenever I remember to calm consciousness and recenter it in the moment. This is a discipline of maturity for which I am very grateful.

Something Else: However, on the level of my private shuddering, I am far more grateful for Something Else. Whether I am in the midst of turmoil and despair or settled into the stillness and poise of the moment, I am not alone.

Here is where reason falters, where I have to shift to mythopoetic language in order to suggest what I cannot define.

In Part I, I described becoming “a refugee from the ‘christian’ world” after I came out as a gay man and left Lutheran seminary in 1973.

On one level, the search I began then is for a living, breathing coherence in personal belief. What is the true character of God and our relationship with God, when orthodoxy condemns the homosexual love I have come to understand as a God-given blessing rather than a curse in my life? What is the true nature of salvation, when orthodoxy denies it to non-believers?

On a deeper level, as I acknowledged at the end of Part II, my coming out of Christian orthodoxy is a somewhat uncomfortable search for a way around the notion of “obeying God’s will”—or, better, a search for a living, breathing version of obedience which I can affirm and practice. What if those who reject homosexuals and non-believers are right? Or, if they are not, how do I perceive and follow that real “God’s will” which is beyond orthodoxies?

On the deepest level, the level of my private shuddering, my search is for what Thomas Merton calls “the possibility of an uninterrupted dialogue with God…a dialogue of love and of choice. A dialogue of deep wills” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 16-17).

In other words, a search for relationship, not with “God” as learned from and defined by others, but with Divine Presence as experienced in consciousness, unmediated by words and concepts.

Recall Todd Shy’s words quoted earlier: “The portrait of God is all.”

In the depth of depression, as I was finishing Part II, I reached the following passage in my reading of Merton’s New Seeds:

In all the situations of life the “will of God” comes to us not merely as an external dictate of impersonal law but above all as an interior invitation of personal love.

Too often the conventional conception of “God’s will” as a sphinx-like and arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, leads men to lose faith in a God they cannot find it possible to love. Such a view of the divine will drives human weakness to despair and one wonders if it is not, itself, often the expression of a despair too intolerable to be admitted to conscious consideration.

These arbitrary “dictates” of a domineering and insensible Father are more often seeds of hatred than of love. If that is our concept of the will of God, we cannot possibly seek the obscure and intimate mystery of the encounter that takes place in contemplation. We will desire only to fly as far as possible from Him and hide from His face forever.

So much depends on our idea of God! Yet no idea of Him, however pure and perfect, is adequate to express Him as He really is. Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him” (p. 17).

Yes, yes, and yes.

In future posts I will tell more about myself by writing more about the idea of God. For now, in saying that I am not a nontheist, what I am acknowledging is that I have made peace with and understood the value of my “native religious language.”

It is the mythopoetic language in which I first learned to conceptualize and describe the experience of “the Divine.” It is not a language for definition—certainly not for doctrinal formulation. It is, rather, a language for evoking spiritual shuddering.

As I wrote in “Is it Spring yet?“:

In the past few years, though, Walhydra has been looking for the pre-theological core of her faith, her spiritual enthusiasm [from Greek enthous, entheos, possessed, inspired : en-, in + theos, god].

Guess what? She found its roots in the positive visceral childhood experiences of Lutheran Sunday School, her father’s sermons, her mother’s organ-playing, and the hymn-singing of the congregation’s old ladies.

What an interesting surprise!

This actually makes sense, though. Ever since childhood, the real Jesus—who is far more real than any of the “Christianities” seem able to express—has been Walhydra’s hero.

Walhydra imbibed all of those Sunday School stories and sermons and hymns, to the point that Jesus became a real presence for her, a divine human of fierce integrity and fierce compassion. Whenever anyone makes false claims in his name, he lets her know. More to the point, whenever Walhydra causes harm or tries to hide, he lets her know.

Another way to say this is that my faith is not about what I believe but about what I trust.

When I am in turmoil or despair, my child’s heart turns to a personified Divine Presence, to a “God” who, as Frederick Buechner writes, is “a God like Jesus, which is to say a God of love” (“The Clown in the Belfrey,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, p. 125).

When I am poised in sacred stillness, I feel the joy of “being right with God, trusting the deep-down rightness of the life God has created for us and in us, and riding that trust the way a red-tailed hawk rides the currents of the air” (Ibid., p. 127).

In between these times, I experience the constant shifting of my trust, my faith. As Buechner writes:

Some days it’s easier to say Yes than other days. And even when we say Yes, there’s always a no lurking somewhere in the shadows, just as when we say no there’s always a Yes. That’s the way faith breathes in and breathes out, I think, the way it stays alive and grows. (Ibid., p. 129)

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

There’s a beautiful little piece in New Seeds of Contemplation which gratifies both my Christian roots and what Walhydra in her “About Me” paragraphs calls my “Pagan sensibility”:

A saint is capable of loving created things and enjoying the use of them and dealing with them in a perfectly simple, natural manner, making no formal references to God, drawing no attention to his own piety, and acting without any artificial rigidity at all.

His gentleness and his sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait-jacket. They come from his direct docility to the light of truth and to the will of God.

Hence a saint is capable of talking about the world without any explicit reference to God, in such a way that his statement gives greater glory to God and arouses a greater love of God than the observations of someone less holy, who has to strain himself to make an arbitrary connection between creatures and God through the medium of hackneyed analogies and metaphors that are so feeble that they make you think there is something the matter with religion. (26)

How delightful!

Blesséd Be.

Each year on my birthday, I look forward to reading the meditation for August 29th in Daily Word, the devotional magazine of Unity Church.

The message has always tended to be something I could welcome as a motto for the new year, something which affirmed my sense of self and reassured me that I was on the so-called “spiritual path.”

This year, however, I stumbled mentally. The day’s topic was “Pray for Others,” and the opening affirmation was:

I pray for you, knowing that God is blessing you now and always.

The scripture passage following the text of the meditation was this one:

In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” – Luke 3:11

My disappointment was so palpable that I almost put the meditation away without finishing it.

Then I recalled that I’ve had this reaction almost every time the Daily Word message has directed my attention to others, rather than to myself.

Journaling later that day at my favorite coffeehouse, I realized that this reaction shows me how much of what I call my daily “faith and practice” is really just about me. About sustaining and reassuring and comforting me.

I may voice more generous concerns and professions in blogs or conversations or worship. Yet the baseline of my day for several years now has been my own sense of loss, anger, distress, longing, loneliness, and so on. And, hence, my pleading that somehow or other I be able to find a daily “spiritual routine” which will give me relief.

As I wrote in “On waiting and squirming,” for most of a decade I have secretly been on guard against “caring too much” about people or being “in the path of obligation” to help them.

I am lost in this.

What I’ve just described is the unvarnished version of what Quakers call experiencing the Inner Light, rather than the New Age-y version. Simon St. Laurent recently shared a relevant passage from Fox in a post to his Light and Silence: Reflections on Quakerism:

The Lord doth show unto a man his thoughts, and discovereth all the secret workings in man. A man may be brought to see all his evil thoughts and running mind and vain imagination….

Sitting in the coffeehouse with this fresh self-awareness, I picked up my other, newer devotional reading, Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and read:

Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding.

For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial “doubt.” This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion. This false “faith” which is what we often live by and which we even come to confuse with our “religion” is subjected to inexorable questioning.

This torment is a kind of trial by fire in which we are compelled, by the very light of invisible truth which has reached us in the dark ray of contemplation, to examine, to doubt and finally to reject all the prejudices and conventions that we have hitherto accepted as if they were dogmas….

What a holocaust takes place in this steady burning to ashes of old worn-out words, clichés, slogans, rationalizations!

The worst of it is that even apparently holy conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. It is a terrible breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left empty: the center, the existential altar which simply “is.” (13-14)

How bizarrely comforting it is to read this!

In the Buddhist metaphor, it describes that rare moment of letting all of one’s acquired significators for experience fall away.

In the Pagan metaphor, it is what I’ve experienced when the Crone—or Kali—says, “Nothing is sacred. No thing that you have seized upon to save you is sacred. Let it all go.”

Though I will not pretend that I am suddenly better at praying for others instead of only for myself, the light is shining on that wound within me. Perhaps, if I resist turning off that light….

Meanwhile, the last part of that chapter from Merton gives me another odd sort of comfort:

In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is. He 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.”

And so it is.

Blesséd Be,
Michael

One of my Friendly correspondents has reminded me that, back in February, I addressed some of the concerns of the previous post from the perspective of my alter-ego Walhydra’s hopeful skepticism.

In “The Virgin of Hollywood, Florida,” Walhydra groused at length about the gullibility of “the masses,” who blithely toss their belief after every tabloid headline, urban legend, or political sound bite.

Yet she found herself wondering: “How does one move from scorn for the credulous to a working, sustaining faith for oneself?”

I thank my correspondent for sending me back to read this piece again. Becoming audience to my own writing jolted me back into the present moment for which I’ve been longing.

This morning, I got a welcome jolt from another direction.

Elsewhere I’ve referred to Antonio Damasio’s book Decartes’ Error, the first of a remarkable trilogy of books in which the author explicates the field of neurobiology’s current understanding of how human consciousness works.

In this first book, Damasio demonstrates how Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum misses the organic reality of the workings of the brain. The brain, in fact, must make direct use of the information it receives through the emotions in order to be able to do any sort of reasoning.

In other words, the West’s classic elevation of reason as higher than and independent of emotion does not match biological reality. The two must and do work in tandem.

My jolt this morning, however, comes from a different writer’s take on Descartes. In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes the following:

Nothing could be more alien to contemplation 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 on the observation that he “thinks.” If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence, then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being.

At the same time, by also reducing God to a concept, he makes it impossible for himself to have any intuition of the divine reality which is inexpressible. He arrives at his own being as if it were an objective reality, that is to say he strives to become aware of himself as he would of some “thing” alien to himself. And he proves that the “thing” exists. He convinces himself: “I am therefore some thing.” And then he goes on to convince himself that God, the infinite, the transcendent, is also a “thing,” an “object,” like other finite and limited objects of our thought!

Contemplation, on the contrary, is the experiential grasp of reality as subjective, not so much “mine” (which would signify “belonging to the external self”) but “myself” in existential mystery. Contemplation does not arrive at reality after a process of deduction, but by an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive to its own existential depths, which open out into the mystery of God.

For the contemplative there is no cogito (“I think”) and no ergo (“therefore”) but only SUM, I AM. Not in the sense of a futile assertion of our individuality as ultimately real, but in the humble realization of our mysterious being as persons in whom God dwells, with infinite sweetness and inalienable power. (9-10)

Damasio might well highlight this clause: “If his thought is necessary as a medium through which he arrives at the concept of his existence….”

From the perspective of neurobiology, thought is an organic process of the brain which does, indeed, create the construct of a “self,” in order to map and make more efficacious use of the higher order information it stores. The self only “exists” as the transient constellation of these maps of information…and ceases when the body ceases.

For me this morning, the jolt was in the second clause of that sentence: “…then he is in fact only moving further away from his true being.”

When I do manage to center down through my own noise, what remains is a consciousness, an awareness, an awakeness. The brain simply watching and waiting. 

I am not saying that this awakeness is itself God.

Yet I suspect—and Merton seems to be suggesting—that for any and all of us who experience it, this non-selfconscious awareness is the “space” wherein we come closest to That which we tend to call “God.”

I don’t want to analyze this too much right now. As Merton writes, the key is experience, not analysis.

SUM.

And so it is.

Blesséd Be,
Michael

Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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