Thursday, September 6, 2012

Contemplate This

Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true.
Thomas Merton

The dualistic life that separates the "sacred" from the "secular" needs to be mended. Let's bring the two worlds together and bring God back into every sphere of our lives. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from 1941 until his death in 1968, was committed to a spirituality which strived to experience God in every moment of the day:

Contemplation is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.

Life, for Merton, was about consistently heeding Jesus’ warning to his disciples at Gethsemane: “Stay awake!” (Mark 14:38) Merton did not see a contrast between the Creator and created things, but instead, a strong tendency for humanity to cling, or attach, to various things (which are, in and of themselves, good) in order to cope with the chaos, confusion, tragedy and absurdity of life. This led to enslavement, or as the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh would say, colonization. When we are colonized by things (“thingified” as Martin Luther King would say), we are counterfeited. Merton wrote:

The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.

Merton’s vision for the contemplative life, however, did not equate to removing himself from the world, but to experience God within the routine elements of the day:

To do the work carefully and well, with love and respect for the nature of my task and with due attention to its purpose, is to unite myself to God’s will in my work.

Activities, thus, are not sacred by their nature, but by how we perform them.

Dorothee Soelle, a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in NYC in the 70s & 80s, was committed to a mystical form of Christianity. She wrote that our goal is “to immerse ourselves in God…to become one with the movement of God in the world.” Christianity is not about obedience or submission, but instead about unity & solidarity with God and the whole world:

Solidarity asks that we change the image of God from that of a power-dispensing father to one of a liberating and unifying force, and we cease to be objects and become subjects involved in this process of change, that we learn cooperation rather than wait for things to come to us from on high.

In short, we know God holistically, organically, experientially. For Soelle, set aside times for Bible reading and church services are valuable, but they are not where God is primarily known. Her experience of God consisted of speaking out against the 2nd class status of women, the Vietnam War, the weapons buildup of the Cold War and injustices in the Third World—-this was not an addition to her faith, but the very substance of her faith.

The whole point of a mystical perspective of God is that, indeed, s/he is everywhere. The Apostle Paul reasoned in the marketplace with the Athenians that we should search for God, even grope for him because “he is not far from each one of us.” He then quoted one of their philosophers:

For in him we live and move and have our being.

When we personify God or place God in a heavenly realm outside of the physical world, we can very easily miss out on the kind of Force that shines through every molecule of the universe. The British 20th century literary giant CS Lewis wrote

God is not a static thing—-not even a person—-but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama…a kind of dance.

This creative Force is not violent or vengeful or power-mongering, but instead, gently woos us with a power that patiently overcomes evil and suffering. The 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart made this comparison:

God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding and so gives himself away. God lies in wait for us with nothing so much as love.

Love does not use fear or manipulation to bring us to God. She doesn’t need to. She is beautiful and compelling all on her own. Love humanizes and dignifies us, beckoning us to rest easy in her presence. Behold, we are accepted for who we are!

Indeed, we don’t find God when we are perfect or saintly. Only when we humbly confess that we desperately need the forgiveness, love and compassion that holds the universe together. Only when we dare to enter our own deep darkness do we realize that God is still there. Richard Rohr, the contemporary Franciscan priest, echoes Eckhart:

God hides and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures.

This is precisely what Jesus was up to in the Gospel narratives. He confronted the powerful religious leaders with a message that God did not have labels for people like "clean" or "unclean" nor was God interested in an arbitrary sacrifice bought at the Temple. God was know through acts of justice and mercy. Jesus taught, through his words and lifestyle, that time is sacred, not certain places or people. Every moment of the day is about experiencing God through a divine status and vocation: the bestowing of unconditional love and acceptance upon us and by getting caught up in acts of generosity, forgiveness, service and hospitality to all.

As it turns out, we don't need to go anywhere special or see anyone special to find God. If we quiet our hearts long enough, we might even hear God coughing.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the way that you write Tommy. Although I do not like the first paragraph in this blog, it is too simple. I like the beginning of the second paragraph, but after the first line, it goes awry, and personally, I don't want the "sacred" to infiltrate (bring down) the secular. I like not being "boxed in" to a group or certain way of thinking.

    I have more to say, but I must go to bed.