The Broken Heart Above

I was in prayerful meditation, and the Leonard Cohen song, “Come Healing” was playing.

He sang:

“O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above”

And I was so struck by this image; it is not, perhaps, what was intended, but it welled up within me, forcefully.  It is something that felt right and true.

The image was of a broken hearted God, saddened by the fact that the world is far from where it could be.  I have been deeply pondering the idea of “I am” recently, and the idea of mindfullness and presence.  I am convinced that a divine attribute is to be wholly here and now, in this very moment.  Assuming this is true, God would, be fully aware of hurt, pain, and heart ache.  Every ounce of it in every single being alive.

And at the same time, we are headed to this redemption, this mending of all that is broken.  God’s awareness of this, too, must be much more complete than mine.  And so, while God is fully aware of the pain he is also, I think fully hopeful of a time beyond our current hurt.

*******

I feel like two post scripts are necessary to the above paragraphs.  If you are untroubled by the things I wrote above, you might not find it necessary to consider the following…

Post Script #1:

I am keenly aware that the idea of a disapointed, sad, and angry God have been used as a manipulation tactic for far too long.  I do not endorse or believe in a God that is broken-hearted by every single choice we make which falls short of perfection.  I think his sadness would be an act of solidarity with our sadness.

Post Script #2:

The idea of attributing any emotions to God at all, is a mixed bag for me.  I do not think that God’s experience of sadness fully resembles my experience of sadness.  One major reason for this is that God, being infinite, could I think be fully broken-hearted and fully hopeful at exactly the same time.  It seems that this would be very different than my human, finite experience of being half-way broken hearted and halfway hopeful at the same time.

Present and Presence

One part of my journey into contemplative practices is the attempt to grow increasingly present in my every day life.  I get these little snapshots, when I am meditating, of what it is like to live fully right here in now: in the present, as it unfolds.

The more I meditate, the more I find myself able to bring this into the rest of my life.  I have these moments of freedom when I am not ruled by my fears of the future or my regrets of the past.  Before I began this journey I had no idea how little I lived in the present.  I am deeply aware now, that this is a lifelong project.  If I lived another hundred years, and spent 99 of them meditating, I think I still would not be fully present.

Tonight, I was thinking about how God identifies himself to Moses with a name that works out to be something like “I am.”  There are all kinds of nuances to this, and implications, and meanings.  I think that one of the attributes of these nuances, implications and meanings is that God is Fully Present.  (All sorts of people have all sorts of ways of thinking about God as Presence…)

To be fully present: totally right here and right now…  This is no less mysterious or awe-inspring than the traditional descriptions of God– all powerful, all knowing, perfectly loving.  In the same way that the fundamental forces of physics all turn out to be the same thing at some fundamental level, I suspect that God’s Perfect Presence, and his never-ending power, and his eternal wisdom, and his unending love…  I suspect all these things, too, ultimately all turn out to be the same thing, too.

 

The Agnostic Silence

There was this prophet who had an emotional breakdown.  After this series of crazy conflicts and amazing miracles, he fell apart.  First he was filled with fear.  Then he grew suicidal.  

The bible says that the angels took care of him.  He goes through this period of sleeping, then eating, then sleeping and then eating.   After this time, the angel’s food carried him through a forty day pilgrimage to a mountain where he would meet God.

At this mountain, he enters a cave where his world is rocked by a series of special effects.  Mountains break apart, fires erupt, earthquakes commence.  After each of these, comes the phrase: “But the LORD was not in this.”

Then comes a silence.  My meditation-loving, contemplative self wants the bible to say, “And God was there, in that silence.”

But it doesn’t.  

It does say that he talked to God after, though.  He went out of the cave and he heard God.

There are three messages in all this.

The first is that after a trauma, we need some pretty basic things.  Things like food and rest.  If we don’t get these primary needs met, we are not ready to hear God.

The second is that sitting in silence prepares us to hear God.  Despite what I might want silence to be and mean, at least some of the time, silence isn’t the place where God speaks to us.  On one level this is so obvious: the point at which God speaks is the point at which we are no longer in silence at all.

The third thing is the most difficult for me to pin down.  But there is an interesting transition in this story.  Because near the beginning, when all the wild things are happening on the outside, the bible is crystal clear: God is not there.  And at the end of the story, when God is speaking, God, of course, very much is there.

But in that between-time, that time after the fire but before he hears the voice of God…  it is up for debate: Is God there?  Is God present in the silence?

It seems important to me that this is up for debate, ambiguous.  In our times of silence, we simply do not know.  We might believe.  We might hope.  We might have faith.  We might have memories of all the times he has shown up after those profound silences.  But none of these things are quite the same as knowing.  

I have a sense that this journey is universal.  Every time I sit, I must first tend to the immediate wounds and struggles of my life.  Even if things are going pretty well.  Even if it only takes a few seconds.  There is a process of letting go of my fears and concerns.  I don’t see how I could do this alone.  In some sense, the angels nourish me, at this time.  

After this, when I meditate, what comes next is a pilgrimage of my own.  My journey does not take 40 days.  But just as it went in the story: this part can feel the longest and the most uneventful.    The  journey ends in a holy place.  Then the thunder and lightning from my life might attempt to reassert themselves.    I must, with the prophet,  remind myself: God is not in these things.

When it goes well, then next comes this time of silence.  A time of not-knowing where God is, but a time that is precious nonetheless.

And when it goes really well… Sometimes… just sometimes, I hear God’s after.

 

My Mantra

“Loved.”

That’s the thing I say to myself, over and over.

“Loved” is my mantra, when I meditate.   Those five letters do the job of any other mantra: the return my awareness from whatever thoughts have popped inside my head.  They are my anchor to this moment that is happening right now, tethering me to the only time we are actually alive.  Regrets might want to push me back into the past.  Worries might try to rush me into the future.   When I feel this happening, I say that word to myself, dismiss the things that are clamoring for my attention, and then I am here, in the present.

Some of the time, anyway.  Other times, letting go takes this strange sort-of repeated not-effort.  Sometimes I get swept up a little bit.  I see that getting frustrated with myself at these times is an adventure in missing the point.  So sometimes, I might make several attempts, saying that word, to myself.

There are lots of different types of mantras.  Not just words but images, candles, sounds, sensations like breathing.  All of the those, I think, perform equally well for all the things listed above.

But personally, I get a little extra mileage out of that word, “Loved.”

Difficult and terrifying things came up when I sit in the silence.  Some of them would be dismissed by any old mantra.  But with my word, there is a second line of defense.

When I truly embrace the reality– not only that God is love, but also that I personally am loved– everything also just fades away.  There is not a single fear, worry, memory or feeling that can stand before that simple truth: I am loved.

Saying the word once doesn’t instantly awaken myself to this reality.  But each time I think it, I believe it a lot more.  And that’s a really good feeling.

Words and Wordlessness

It all began beyond words: A big bang, a primal act of creation, the maker of all things creating something that was Not-God.  This was a time beyond words, a thing we can not understand.

But then, God said, “It is good.”

And these words, it seems, were an accurate summary of the way of things.  The picture, in part, was reducible to those three words: It is good.

Until it wasn’t good.  Those words failed to capture the reality of what the world was like when Adam fell.  They failed to capture the reality of what it was like, as man drifted further from God, across hundreds of years, thousands of years.

And then?  Jesus came.  And John’s understanding of the coming of Jesus was that Jesus himself was a word straight from God.  But that word, died.  Though it doesn’t seem really that a word should die.

Until it came back.  Three days later.  But then it went away.  Jesus’ followers came together in this amazing way at the pentecost, and suddenly the words they were all speaking, in countless languages, were understood by all.  Pentecost ended, Jesus spirit returned to God.  But there is this promise, though out the bible, that the word– Jesus– will come back again.

One way to view the bible is this: there is this constant flux, this never-ending transition.  Words mean something.  Then the words no longer capture reality.  Then words come to means something in the end.

I think that the bible, in lots of ways, is an accurate picture of reality.  I think that the world is this way, too: words are perfect for a time, then they are imperfect, then they are meaningless… until they come to mean something, again.

I am thinking about all this stuff as I think about contemplative practices, today.  There is the apaphatic: the attempt to go beyond  words, the dark, mysterious transcendent.  Longing for wordless communion, recognizing the limits of verbal communication, the longing for a deep and silent meditation.

And then there is the cataphatic: the use and embrace of words.  The luminous and understandable.  Putting our thoughts into vocalatizations.  Praying the psalms, reading the bible, petionary prayer.

It seems like we need both the apaphatic and the cataphatic because the world is set up just that way: it flows between wordiness and wordlessness.    The extremes of this spectrum equip us to match the nature of reality itself.

 

 

Why?

My friend asked me what my goal was, here at The Contemplace.

As I started to explain it to him, I realized this would be a good thing to write about: Why, precisely, am I doing this?

I am a middle aged guy.  And I spent the whole first half of my life searching.

I had this love-hate relationship with Jesus.  I was fascinated by the things I heard about this person.  And pretty contemptuous of his followers.  This is, in part, because they were sometimes hypocrites.  It seemed like taking that name, ‘Christian’ was more of a political thing than a spiritual one.  And the politics they endorsed, didn’t seem very consistent with the fascinating stories I heard about the man.

But, in truth, it was also about me.  I was not willing to be particularly tolerant.  I had this sense that taking that leap– following Jesus– would change everything.  In college, I majored in philosophy.  I got a chunk of the way through a master’s degree in philosophy, too.  Philosophy of Religion was my field.  I wanted to find out how these things could be true.

In the midst of all of it, there were these things that didn’t make sense: trinity, for example.  And the crucifixion, as well: Why would God need to kill his first son because of something his other sons did?

On a night when my life was falling apart, there was this tremendous storm.  It’s embarrassing to admit how the thunder shook the window panes; if I saw that scene in the movie, how the weather outside so mirrored my feelings within, I never would have believed it.

In a way, some of my thinking changed.  I had a sense about how the Jesus thing could work.  More importantly, that night, I got the sense that I did not need to understand it.

I became a member of a church.  At that time, it was really good.

They accepted me and all of my thoughts and questions.  It felt like home for a long time.  I loved being there for about ten years.

There were lots of ideas shared with me.  Some of them worked.  Some of them didn’t.  In that place, there was an emphasis on the things we do.  And the things we believe.  I started to drift away.

I remembered my time as a philosophy student.  When you are a philosophy student in Southern California, you are legally required to identify as a Buddhist.  I loved to meditate, back then.

As a Christian, all those years later, I found myself longing for some sort of practice that ran deeper than the sorts of prayer I saw done.  A gulf was forming between who I was and the others who were around me.

This gulf began with this sense that I might somehow be more connected to God.  But there was also a blossoming isolation from the other people around me.   I would hear whispers about these old practices: lectio divina; centering prayer; contemplation.  Nobody specifically and explictly told me to stay away from them.  But nobody seemed to think it was a good idea to explore them, either.

Eventually, I worked up the nerve to explore them.  I found a church home that wasn’t skeptical of them.  And I thought about the years, all the years, that I was so very close.  I could almost touch God.  But he had still been far away.

This is why The Contemplace exists.  Because I wish somebody had told me all those years ago.  I wish they had told me about this forgotten, neglected group of practices.  I wish my community had cheered me on.

I am just a step or two down this very long path.  I suspect that someday I will look at this time in my life and smile wryly, and think that I was trying so hard to be so deep, but that there were lots of things I was pretty clueless about, way back in 2016.

I am willing to take that risk, though.  Because even if I have got a bunch of stuff wrong, I have this sense that I have got a few things right.  I believe not only in the power of these old practices.  I also believe that we can be closer to God than right beliefs and ideas will ever get us by themselves.  I believe that we ought to be urging each other on, toward this closeness.

I believe, most of all, that I am not alone.  We feel homeless, we fear that we are headed down the wrong path.  But we have grown out of easy answers and pat explanations, and we are ready for something more.  This is what The Contemplace is really about: taking this journey together, toward God.

Kenosis

I have been thinking about Kenosis, lately.

Kenosis is the idea that God poured his God-ness out in becoming Jesus.  It carries with it this idea of emptying, of giving up the things that  might be tempting to hold onto.

If I was God, and things weren’t going the way I wanted, I would remake reality the way I wanted it.  I suppose things would end up a bit like the Truman Show, where my own knuckle-headed tendencies would conspire with absolute power in a way that caused things to end poorly for everyone involved.

God, being way smarter than me, doesn’t wield his power.  He gives it up.

The thing I am noticing is that many of these religions, that seem to have discovered contemplative practices quite independently each other, all grapple with this same idea: that the way to be is to be open-handed, open-hearted.  Their is power in emptiness.

Meditation, then, isn’t just a God-like act in the ways it centers me, and in the ways it connects me to God.  Even if it didn’t do these things, the mere act of sitting to be, of choosing to create emptiness and engage in a letting go: these too, are the (non)actions of God.

silence and Silence

You would think silence would be easy…  And if you grabbed a shallow, material definition of the word “silence” you would be right.  Because anybody who is older than 13 has an easy enough time just closing their mouth.  As a result, by some ways of thinking about it, such a person would be silent.

But of course, we all know that we can stop making physical noise and be so far away from silent.  Sometimes, these are the times when our minds and hearts are making the most noise: those times when we are physically silent.

The point of meditation and contemplation is this deeper silence.  I have been thinking about this lately: the idea that we cultivate these Deep Silences.   They seem to be the only appropriate response to many of the mysteries that surround us.

In lots of important ways, we are little, tiny things adrift in an ocean of things way bigger than us.  The Mystery of life, and of death.  The Mystery of suffering, and of injustice.  The Mystery of existence, and of God.

We won’t ever fully grasp these things.  We can’t explain them away, we can’t control them.  There are probably times that it is worth trying to chisel away at little aspects of them that we might wrap our brains around.  But equally, there are times to humbly agnowledge our position to these things.

In some way, my silence becomes a sort-of offering to God.   As I thought about this, I remembered these words of Mother Theresa.  She told an interviewer once, that one of her ways of praying was to listen to God.  When the interviewer asked what God was saying, she said that God was saying nothing; God was listening to her.  Mother Theresa described this process, where she and God listened to each other, listening to each other.  I love that, even though I don’t know exactly what it means.

I kind-of hope it means something like presenting my silence to God as an offering, though.   Other wise thinkers have talked about contemplation as an act of reflecting God’s image back at God’s self.  Being silent is like preparing my inner mirror, cleaning off the accumulated grime of my ego and baggage, so I can more fully reflect God.

God, of course, reflects right back at me in those times.  And there is this little (big?) piece of God, dwelling inside me.  So when I see myself clearly, purely, I see God there, too…   It is as if the reflection then aligns with the image outside of me, that I am looking at…

I think I have just reached the place where words stop making sense.  Seems like a good place to end and be silent.

Through the Night

I hear smart, holy people talking about the desert fathers and mothers.  They were some of the original Christ-following contemplatives.  And our situation today is a strange echo of the reality they lived.

My understanding is that when Christianity became the religion of the empire, some people didn’t like what they saw happening to it.  They left the empire, and continued to live out their faith.

I suspect that this isn’t too different than the state we find ourselves in now.  Christianity has become the faith of our American empire.  And so we have watered things down and shifted the focus.

I believe that following Jesus is as an act that is subversive.  It comes up from powerlessness and erupts suddenly.  I don’t actually know what it would look like, for an authentic Christianity to be enmeshed with the majority, with the powerful.

But I digress.  The desert fathers:

Despite the fact that I hear all this stuff about them, I don’t have much experience with them directly.    There is a work called ‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.’  It is a collection of brief anecdotes about these folks.  It is sometimes like reading the bible itself; equal parts strange and familiar, surprising and expected.  There are parts that make me want to cheer, and parts that make me want to weep.  I suspect that some of the spiritual work in reading and applying this stuff is balancing being discerning with not just skimming for the things I want it to say.

And so, I proceed with a little bit of caution.  But I am going to proceed.  I am going to share the sayings that strike me as relevant, and ponder a bit about the meaning of all this.

Here is the saying I am thinking about today:

“It was also said of him (Abba Arsenius) that on Saturday evenings, preparing
for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his
hands in prayer  towards the  heavens, till once   again the sun shone on  his
face. Then he would sit down.”

There is, of course, a literal meaning to that little paragraph.  But I was struck by a symbolic one.

It is easy to want to bask in the sunlight.  People have actually worshipped the sun for as long as they have worshipped anything.  The idea that you might turn your back on the sun seems like rejecting the easy and false sources of happiness we can find in life.  Stretching out the hands to heavens, instead, is I think, an act of faith and courage.  It is a recognition that the home of God is not in this earthly place, it is far away from us.

If he kept going until the sun shone on his face, he literally prayed through the night.  I love the idea of symbolically praying through the night…  Doing it with out stopping, doing it with out reassurances.

That’s my prayer for us today: May we all pray through the darknesses that face us, and may we sit, with satisfaction, when the sun rises on a glorious Sunday.

 

 

 

Negating the Negation

We live in this world of light.

This is true on a very literal level.  When I have been camping (especially those times I have been ill-prepared!)  I learn this new appreciation for our modern conveniences.  But also, I think we have lost something.

Because we also live in this world of darkness.  And I would suggest that how easy it is to flip a switch and bathe a room with exactly as much light as you want– this has lead to us living in denial of that truth– we also live in darkness.

Last post I played around with two great words.  In some sense, they boil down to claims about the way the world is.  The Cataphatic claims that we live in a world of light.  The apophatic claims that we live in a world of darkness.  

Both of these statements are true.

One of the ways that this plays is out with our words.  The Cataphatic states that there are many things which are well-defined by words.  The apophatic reminds us that there are other things that are simplified, limited, and even strangled when we attempt to put them into words.  This is never more true than when it comes to describing God.

It seems like our age is one where we live near the cataphatic extreme.   Western Philosophy lead to a powerful science that leverages words, definitions, and rationality to do things that past generations never would have imagined.  Many modern churches have been impacted by this, and useful and powerful ideas have resulted.

The apophatic tradition has been fittingly, or ironically, left out in the dark.  There are three ways we ought to welcome the apophatic back, to bring balance to what we are doing.

We ought to bring the apophatic back into our traditions.  We ought to look into our past for traditions that have been marginalized. For example, the desert fathers and mothers left “mainstream” Christianity when it became the religion of the empire, and they developed some extraordinary practices which lead to an appreciation of silence and darkness.

We ought to find the folks who tend toward the apophatic among us.  Perhaps they know the word.  Perhaps it is just a feeling in them.  Either way, those who resist the tendency to make an idol of words and orthodoxy have so much to offer us.

Finally, we ought to embrace our own inner apophatic.  We have a part of ourselves that dwells in the darkness, that resists definitions, that wants to drink in the fullness of experience not altered and muted with words.

Whether in the past or the present, whether outside or inside, the apophatic has so much to teach us about the places we don’t like to go.  The handling of our pain, hurt, and sorrow has been so Cataphatic for so many of us that we are only half-healed.

There is an apophatic practice that helps us to confront the limitations of words.  This form of meditation is not one that connects with everyone.  But the people who can make it work report this to be incredibly powerful.  Here’s how it goes:

Consider very brief descriptions of God.    (Perhaps words like ‘father, strong, love, wise, all-knowing, all-powerful, warrior, lover, healer, creator…)

Begin with an affirmation:

For example, God is father.

Meditate on this truth for a minute or two.

Then, speak the negation: God is not father.

You might recognize that there are aspects of the father-image which don’t fit.  For example, God’s role as creator might be more identified with mother-figures, who bare life.  Further, all fathers are limited and flawed.  When many of us say the word ‘father’ the limitations of our own come to my mind and color our view of God.  Further, we are saying these words in English.  They are translations of ancient words from dead language.  Even when the word we use is an accurate translation, the difference in culture change the meaning.  A person today affirming God’s fatherhood would mean something quite different than a first century Jew affirming God’s fatherhood.

As you did with that first statement, sit with this reality for a minute or two.

 

Finally, negate the negation: God is not not-father.

This is the hard part.

In the study of logic, to say something is not-not X is to say that it is X.  But this misses so much.  When we say that God is not not-father we are agnowlodgint that our last claim: God is not father is just as mistaken as our first claim: God is father.  Because God is the definition of father and when we claim otherwise, we are missing something, we are losing something.

I have found that this requires the longest period.  If you sat with the first two affirmations for two minutes, perhaps this one will take four.

Then, new statements can be introduced: God is not strong/God is not strong/ God is not not strong.  (Strength has limits, Strength does not imply wisdom or love, it can be only physical, it can be associated with stubborness)

God is love, God is not love, God is not not love.  (Love is a force, feeling, or emotion, it does not usually have personhood, we sometimes see love as doing what is nice, not what is necessary, our love is usually conditional)

I think it will be good for you to work out the meaning and the limits of those other statements, or better yet, furnish your own to plug into the format God is _____, God is not _______ god is not not ________________.

You might find something like the insight app is useful for this meditation.  If you set the timer for the sounds to recurr every minute, you can track how long you have been engaged in the various parts.  Or perhaps you’d like to dedicate a single session to one affirmation, negation, and negation of the negation.