Note: This short meditation began as a journal entry, which explains how it begins and the way it flows. I choose to share it with an interested reader.
The real issue is not “the Church” or “problems with the clergy,” but God. In not attending liturgies or services now, have I lost faith in God? In not respecting some of the clergy I have encountered in life, have I lost contact with God? By no means. The essence of prayer is the awareness of divine Presence. And this of course implies that the essence of prayer is not “attending church” or “giving money,” or “respecting the clergy,” even if some of them live as scoundrels, betraying Christ and his people.
First things first. What about God? To some fluctuating extent, I remain conscious of the divine Presence in and to consciousness. How dare I say—as some do—that “I have a problem with God”? That would be tantamount to saying that “I have a problem with reality, with the way things are.” No, I accept reality, and I accept the Presence of the divine as part of reality: or part of one’s being in reality.
I awoke thinking of Voegelin’s conception of the in-between, and what could be called the “bi-polarity of consciousness,” although I doubt that he used the term, and it could easily be psychologized into “bipolar disease,” or more likely schizophrenia. As Voegelin has written, there are some who in effect seek to misunderstand. (I see the same thing happening to President Trump repeatedly: some hate him so much that they do not even seek to understand him or what he says. Everyone has his or her problems, but one gains nothing good by proceeding from hatred or ill-will. The sights and sounds of this Trump-hatred are disturbing, and display a decadent society, to say the least.) In any case, some persons either do not understand or actively seek to misunderstand. So I must be cautious in how I word this brief reflection.
For so it is with the divine. Obviously, the Nietzschean approach of radical antagonism to the divine was self-murdering, or spiritually suicidal: he “blew his mind,” one can say, by his active rebellion against God. Nietzsche knew well what he was doing—most atheists and agnostics are too superficial to know what they are doing. Indeed, common in our culture is the habit of ignoring the divine: the practice of oblivion. I do not wish to live in either mode—rebellion or oblivion—but one can easily slip into oblivion without some sort of “spiritual exercises.” One such spiritual exercise is meditation, another is study (as in close reading of sacred texts), one is self-examination, one is dialogue with another on “the things of God.” I presently lack anyone in my life with whom to discuss the things of God in depth—other than in the adult faith class, and we have not met since early or mid-March when we were forced to quarantine because of the Wuhan virus pandemic (COVID-19).
Here is a simple thought: I think that the understanding of the bi-polarity of consciousness as stretched between the human and the divine is incomplete. In a sense, I find a tri-polarity of consciousness: all that one calls “ego,” “self,” “I,” or self-consciousness in all forms; the divine Partner as the ultimate cause and the illuminating power through intellect within consciousness or the soul; and all that is external to one’s consciousness, including body, physical world, and other persons (who are more complex, as some of them in effect become partners with consciousness through love and friendship). Voegelin concentrated on the divine-human I-Thou, and that is decisive in human being. But there is also in Martin Buber’s terms the I-It, and that includes, as noted, one’s body, the physical world and its multipolar parts, and other human beings until one enters into an I-Thou with one / several of them.
Note: For many persons, including Christians, their “relationship” with God is far more I-It than I-Thou. In other words, the divine is treated as “something” external to them, not as a Thou who enters into a living partnership with them.
I am highly conscious of the I-physical world bipolarity, or that aspect of tri-polarity. When I was examining a Rocky Mountain juniper last evening, I became clearly conscious of the tree as an other, as a being-thing to which or to whom I was relating. It was more than just a “thing,” but a living being to whom I was relating. The tree presented itself to me, and its being reached into consciousness as I examined it peacefully, wonderingly, and took several digital images of it using my iPhone. Often I have this sense of communion with either of my dogs: Moses or Elijah is a real person to me, Another, and I am conscious of a partnership. (No few persons have mocked me for this: “It is just a dog.” Well, you are “just a human being.” Do you know what either dog or man really is?) Of late I am especially conscious of partnering with the dogs, but also with physical nature, such as the bushes and trees I have been planting in the back yard (requiring so much digging in very rocky land). I am often conscious of the heavens: the sun, moon, stars, clouds; and the weather in its musical variations. I am conscious standing in a relationship to heavenly bodies, aware that I am in a sense communing with them by gazing on them and appreciating their beauty and their thereness, that they exist or are, as I do (whether they are conscious or not is not the question; that they exist is). Because of the way I experience the heavenly bodies, for example, I have no difficulty moving from observation and scientific awareness into a mythical mode of experience. For example, as I behold the planet Venus, I am aware that it is a planet, a physical body, second planet from the sun. But I can and do easily behold in Venus the goddess of Beauty and of Love, as understood by the ancient Greeks. It makes as much sense to me—and has more meaning—than thinking of Venus as a planet and nothing else. It represents to me the mystery that is divine, and that Christians call “God.” I frankly feel pity for so many in our generation who look at the night sky—if they bother to look at all—and just see stars, planets, perhaps comets, satellites. I have a sense of communing with the Creator in his beautiful creatures, the heavenly bodies. The cosmos is indeed “full of gods” for me, full of divine presence. And I am genuinely thankful not to have allowed this culture to bleach that awareness out of me. How often is it ever even mentioned in school? No, it does not fit the mindset of a highly secular culture (which is in fact decultured).
It is not mentally or spiritually healthy to ignore any part of reality. Just to become absorbed in meditation to the exclusion of awareness of one’s existence in one’s body, and in the whole in which all exist, is by no means healthy. That experiment of Descartes’, that formed the basis for his Méditations, has struck me as wrong-headed from the start ever since I first began to read it. It seems self-absorbed, and willfully blind to me. Descartes (“the father of modern philosophy,” and hence of “modern culture”) does not even reflect from the outset of his meditations that he is an existent being in a “world,” in reality, with the stars and sun above, and earth below, and so on. He begins with his mind seeking to prove that he exists—which seems utterly odd. And then he will make his apodictic assertion: Cogito ergo sum! “I think, therefore I am.” Well, René, you exist, but in truth you are not; only God simply is, and in truth can assert, “I am.” Don’t make yourself a god—it is a very dangerous role to play, and the game of a fool.
And then later in the Méditations Descartes seeks to “prove” the “existence of God”—a fool’s errand if there ever was one. Descartes treats the divine as if it were an object of his mind, a concept, or a mathematical object (and Descartes was a great mathematician, of course). And then he gets himself into his famous “mind-body” problem, which is a false dichotomy to begin with. The mind or consciousness is located within the body, and is highly affected by the condition of the body. There is no separation of mind and body of which one is aware. One can abstract from consciousness of the body—as in meditation—but in doing so, it is mentally balanced to remember that one’s consciousness is bodily located, and that the body is part of an enormous and mysterious Whole. There is no disembodied human consciousness—or none of which I or any you whom I know is aware. There is consciousness within reality, of reality—and perhaps we could add, for reality. Consciousness or the human mind is a part of the mysterious whole, and not apart or separate from it. Is that so difficult to grasp? It was difficult for Descartes, because he began his Méditations by asserting that he was a self-thinking being—in effect, a product of his own thinking. As Puck declares in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “What fools these mortals be.” Take a bow, Rene Descartes. And next time you wish to philosophize, try beginning with humility: an awareness of our being part of the mysterious whole, and not self-thinking “things” (your word).
I am barely aware of any self-consciousness without the awareness of the presence of God in me and to me. In other words, when I think of myself, I am aware of the divine that reaches into me. God is no afterthought for me, or “something out there,” but that which forms, illumines, guides, from moment to moment.
I can recall periods of my life when the awareness of the presence of the divine to me, in me, was much weaker, and virtually was faded into the kind of oblivion in which many in our culture exist: namely, when I was a small boy up through my high school years, mainly. In youth (say, age about 3 to about 19) I had episodic awareness of the divine presence, but it was not sustained, nor was it understood as ongoing and real, whether I was choosing to attend or not. Let’s put the matter a little differently: Until about age nineteen (while an undergraduate student), I was rarely conscious that God was present to me, in me, with me. In retrospect I can say: God was no doubt present, but I was not aware of the divine presence. I did not attend to the divine within. In the famous words of St. Augustine in his Confessions, “Behold, you were with me, but I was not with you.” Exactly. It is not that as a boy I consciously I rejected the reality of God, but “God” was something “out there,” or “other.” During my early years I had experiences of divine presence, but I was not aware that the I AM was ever present, and could not be otherwise. I think that many so-called “believers” are in this state of consciousness, or what could be called, a “partial eclipse of consciousness.” These believers do not flatly deny the “existence of God,” but indeed affirm it; but they barely understand in any real way what they are talking about, because “God” is notional to them, a name for “something,” for a “being,” who may have “created heaven and earth,” or may be “found in the Bible,” or “spoke by the prophets,” and is “taught by the Church,” and so on; but they are unaware that before they can form a single word, or think, or question, or be aware at all, the divine is in the as the light of their minds, as that which was ever streaming into them, ever creating and re-creating them.
Before proceeding, I pause to reflect: In thinking these thoughts presently, I am aware that I am thinking with and for what is called “God,” and that this simple awareness is “prayer” in a certain mode. The awareness of the divine within is not what believers call “prayer” because I am not addressing “another,” or even “listening to God” as such. Rather, I am allowing the divine light to illuminate me, to help me be aware of how the divine is present to a human being—and how one can become unconscious of God, oblivious to God. Thinking true thoughts is by its nature a participation in what we call “God.” I think that many who call themselves “Christians” or “Muslims” are not highly conscious of God. They are thinking and talking about a conception of God, according to their various beliefs or opinions and their level of understanding. That is not what I am doing now. Rather, I am implicitly “calling on the Beginning of all beginnings,” I am aware that as I think about God, I am not some isolated self or being, but a partner of what is called “God.” The divine to which I am referring is the divine as I experience it: that which is the ultimate origin of my existence, the origin and light of consciousness, and the end to which I am moving and being moved. One could call this divine “Intellect,” if one so chooses—as Aristotle did, for one. But in any case, it is not identical with the “God” of the creeds or the “God” that believers say that they “believe in.” It is the power and the presence that moves the mind towards truth, and moves actions towards goodness. The divine is the ultimate ground and being of one’s existence, the rock on which a lover of wisdom builds his house.
As I previously noted, from the age when I first became conscious in concrete experiences (age two, perhaps, but surely not later than three), up to about age nineteen, “God” was to me “another,” “out there,” “the creator.” I had some conception of who or what God was, but it was notional, it was not yet clearly and self-consciously experiential. That may seem odd, given that I had and was aware of having concrete experiences of God. There were moments when, to use verbal expressions, “God broke in,” or “God revealed himself to me,” or “God spoke to me,” or “God guided me.” But these were exceptional moments, and illuminated my life, guided me—but were not yet ongoing, to a greater or lesser extent. They were exceptional. I can recall a number of such occasions, and they are precious in my reflections on the unfolding of my life, because they were highly formative. But they were exceptions. I had not yet drawn the right conclusion, or allowed my thinking to become sufficiently formed by these moments of divine in-breakings to realize that what believers call “God” is that which is ever and always present and forming one’s mind / soul, whether one acknowledges it or not.
As far as I know at this moment, it was not until what I have called my “conversion to Christ” around age nineteen that my consciousness or soul or awareness of the divine radically changed. I had long been dimly aware of my fascination with the divine. But suddenly, it was as if God overwhelmed me, flooded me, and I yielded my mind and life over to God who was and is always present. In words similar to what I used at the time (c 1970):
I read the passage in Scripture in which Christ said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone opens the door, I will come in and sup with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20) I read the words, I believed, my soul was opened up, and I experienced the inflowing of Christ. I suddenly became intensely aware of God present in me, to me, as the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. That was it.
Although my awareness of the presence of Christ as God in me has at times waxed and waned over the years, it has not been wholly effaced. Rather, it attracts me to think about this presence, as well as to obey and to love it, with a most thankful heart. For the inflowing of Christ was immediately felt as an uplifting of my spirits, a coming-to-life-again,” and it gave me much joy, overcame darkness and sorrow, and truly changed my life. I felt as though I had been “raised from the dead,”and suddenly—as I told a few friends—“everything glows!” The whole world became new to me, because my consciousness was changed, renewed. Not all at once, no “perfectionism,” no Gnostic certainty, but an awareness of “I in you and you in me” (Gospel of John), of a real union with God, a marriage, a state of joy that I could either nourish and appreciate, or let diminish.
Unlike fundamentalists or Gnostics obsessed with their own experiences to the denial of the validity of others’ experiences of God, I am well aware that the divine has “many and varied ways” of communicating itself to human beings. I dare say that no experience is normative for anyone else, but one’s own experiences surely are normative and formative to the one who has them. “To whom much is given, much will be demanded.” What is normative for all is that the I AM is ever present in and with every human being. In other words, God’s action in Moses is normative for humankind. And in asserting this I am consciously inverting the foolish words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions: “Did God speak to Moses to speak to Jean-Jacques” (to me)? And I say,“You’re darn right he did, Rousseau; stop playing your self-centered games. The revelation of the I AM WHO AM to Moses is normative for all humankind;and God has many and varied ways to break into one’s own consciousness. But there is no revelation or experience that transcends or dwarfs the revelation of God as I AM. Why? Because God alone is God: He who is. All else is passing.
Even though from about nineteen I have been aware of the divine presence, surely there have been moments since then that were even more intense, more enlivening. To mention just one—without details now, as I have done so before—I had the intense experience of God singing through me, then the divine as a force-field around my head and in my mind, and a powerful awareness of the divine presence. I was about twenty-three then, a graduate student in Santa Barbara, California. It happened during a Lutheran service, triggered by the words, “Cast me not away from thy presence,” as I realized, “To say those words, David was already aware of being in God’s presence.” That was it. And then at the end of the experience, the “word of the LORD” spoken in me, to me, using my thoughts but with unmistakable divine source and authority: “Your life work is to have such experiences and to seek to understand them.” How can I forget? How dare I forget! It was wonderful, delightful, up-lifting.
So the awareness of the presence of God is not constant, not a dead or passive fixture, not just something about which to speak. Rather, as with love between two persons, it is living and undergoes ebbs and flows, and degrees of intensifying or receding. As in a loving relationship—for it is a loving relationship, of God and I/ you—one must “work at it,” renew it, be aware, thankful, not take it for granted. “Prayer” can help keep the awareness alive, but not necessarily For what is called “prayer” can also be alienating from the concrete experience, if one allows thoughts of “God out there” to eclipse the awareness of the I AM in and to consciousness. It is both / and: the divine is ever beyond, and ever near; God is within and without; present and absent; one and in some sense many. Words fail. But I know that falling into the habit of prayer as muttering words even with feelings to “God” can dull one’s spiritual sensitivity. I remember a monk telling me that when he recited the psalms in monastic choir, he just tuned out the words, paid no attention to them. I would often see him twiddling his thumbs, and thought of Dostoevsky’s description of modern man as “consciously thumb-twiddling” (in his “Thoughts from underground,” as I recall). Whether this monk-priest was attuned to God when he just let his mind drift, and did not pay attention to the words he was uttering in “prayer,” I do not know. What I do know is this: much that passes as “prayer” does not interest me. If I “say my prayers,” I may simply be tuning out, or dulling my awareness of the simple, uncaused presence of the I AM in consciousness which is what we call “God.”
Better not to pray at God, but to listen, to be mindful, to be aware of the most simple reality: “I AM with you to deliver you, says the LORD,” as heard by the prophet Jeremiah when he needed inner strengthening. The God of the Hebrew prophets was, consciously, the God of Moses, the Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh: I AM WHO AM (Exodus 3). That awareness is bedrock, grounding for one’s life. As I have often said, “When Moses left that mountain and the burning bush, he was aware that I AM was with him. Moses became the carrier of God.” (The phrase “carrier” I borrowed from reading Marx in college--Träger; but for Karl Marx, there is no God to carry with one, for there is no God (“In a word, I hate all the gods”). For Marx, as for our “progressives” in the churches today, there are just one’s “social relations.” And that is all. But for Moses, to attend to the divine within him was to become in truth “the man of God” (Ish-‘Elohim, Psalm 90:1).
Here is the point: be mindful of God. Be aware that what we call “God”—for lack of a better word—is that which is present here, now. Enter into this presence now…. Actually, without an awareness of the divine presence to consciousness now, how or why would I have just written what I wrote? On the contrary: the thoughts offered, however imperfect, reflect the awareness of inner presence: I AM with you. Apart from an awareness of the Presence, I have nothing worthwhile to offer.
This awareness is the heart of prayer as I understand it. Although at times I spontaneously utter a sentence—a pattern of words—to the divine, these are the exception to my prayer, not the essence. I may think, “Thanks be to God!” Or “I love you, LORD,” or “What do you want of me, LORD?” But under these words, and in them, is an awareness that the One to whom I utter them is already here, more present to me and with me than I am to myself. The simpler, the more real; the more real, the more present. And what could be simpler than God, that which simply is? Nothing I know—for all things, all being-things, are compounded and diversified, not utterly simple. Except for that which we call “God.”
That should suffice for the present. Would that some mind question me on what I wrote, so that I may justly respond.
—Wm. Paul McKane
29 April 2020
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