God beyond all understanding, origin and end of all that exists, aid me now in my search in You, and for You. Guide me home. Amen.
Problem: It occurs to me that I do not have the same sense of Christ’s presence in me, to me, as I did or thought I did in years past. My quest for God has been far more focused on the movement of consciousness into the divine unknown than a reflection of God incarnate. In usual terms, my way has been more apophatic than cataphatic, although these two modes are inseparable: the way into God without images, and the way into God through images. Christ is the unsurpassable Image of the unseen God. The desire to move from the seen to the unseen, from God as revealed to God “beyond all telling” has long been at work in me. Had it not been, why would I have entered a monastery to “seek God,” the Benedictine way?
As a young man, I prayed, invited Jesus Christ into my soul, and I believe that He entered. The experiences in the early days were intense, fresh, ever-different, and truly life-changing. What has happened to these? The ways that I have experienced divine Presence-Absence have surely changed over time. At this time I will not try to recount some of these experiences for at least two reasons: I have done so before; and I do not think that writing about them is truly beneficial. God has unique ways at working on and in each person, and I do not want to give any impression that His ways with me are normative, or to be expected. What I can say is that over time, these modes of experience have changed considerably. It seems clear to me that God knows what we need, when we need it, in order to draw us into a more authentic life in Him and with Him As Cardinal Newman wrote, “God knows what He is about.” Indeed, He does. We often do not. We grope in darkness—a darkness that is or can be so deep that we often overlook divine workings in us, to us, for us, around us. How blind we often are. How blind am I? “What would you have me do for you,” Jesus asked. “LORD, that I may see again.”
I have been blind to divine workings. What we call “Christ,” or what I call Christ in my consciousness, is not gone or lost at all. God works on me as He wills, as He knows best. As an example, for several years—and perhaps still—I have been strongly drawn to the quite undeveloped Oregon coast to gaze upon the ocean, which for me is an extremely powerful, visible image of the unseen God. I utterly love the Ocean, because it overwhelms me. No one can master the Ocean. “It” (if we dare call the Ocean an “it”) draws one away from self into unknowing, into a realm far greater than anything one can know, understand, grasp. And so I have been drawn back to the Ocean time and again in my life, including in recent years.
When I was suddenly expelled from my home and priestly ministry in Kalispell, Montana, in 1995 (after working there only six months), I experienced God’s healing love through the compassion, kindness, and practical wisdom of Fr. Steve, who at the time was serving as a priest in the Bitterroot. Having felt spiritually abused by the local bishop (who acted harshly on a number of us), I needed to experience God’s love through the personal, brotherly care of an elderly priest. I was Christed through this one man at the time, because that is what I needed to undue the damage done by the uncharitable, heavy-handed bishop and some of his clergy. Again, “God knows what He is doing.” I am thankful for my experiences in Kalispell, and fully trust that the LORD who led me there never abandoned me at all. Not only did I experience Christ’s healing love through a brother priest; even more importantly, perhaps, in the long run, having been thrown out of my home in western Montana, I was led to a very important insight: I have no permanent or lasting home anywhere in this world, so being removed is secondary. Rather, my one home is in God beyond this world. As I suddenly realized, “I have no home but God,” and “God is my home forever.” That is what matters. The all-wise, all-good God brought much good to me out of human evil and foolishness (including my own): I realized that no matter where I am, God is in me, with me, for me, and “my dwelling place forever.” That insight makes a huge difference, especially as so many persons are afraid of change in their lives, afraid of being “thrown out,” or losing their family and friends, and so on. In the wise words of Fr. Steve, “When you are thrown out, just shake the dust off your feet and say, `I’ve been thrown out of better bars.’” Indeed, I have. My home is in God, and only temporarily and for a little while do I live here.
Some friends were surprised when I recently moved from Great Falls to the little town of Sheridan, in the south-western part of beautiful Montana, near Virginia City. I was a little surprised that I had the courage to return to live in the diocese from which I had been ejected by a bishop. But he is long gone, and I am retired—and not as a diocesan priest. Rather, I remain a monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, and am free from the machinations of diocesan politics which seem to me both endless and uninteresting. Men will be men, and the scramble for status and power is ever at work in human hearts; one must constantly seek to guard against seeking power, status, or wealth. These pursuits are the ways of the world, not the way of Christ. If you doubt this, examine the life and writings of St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Teresa of Avila. These giants among human beings knew well what is truly worth seeking, and what is worth letting go. God alone is truly worth seeking “with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul.”
And so I came to Sheridan, where I now live. The loss of closeness to friends and former parishioners affected me, and still does. Some of us are still in fairly frequent contact, thanks to the wonders of “modern communication,” including the cell phone and the internet. These really are very useful tools for “building community,” for “keeping in touch” with friends and loved ones, as well all know.
Still, I must deal with a problem. As a single man (and a monk), I have long noticed that I make few if any friends except through my duties as a parish priest. A priest makes his home in and with his parishioners. They become highly important to his personal, social, spiritual life If they do not invest themselves in their parishioners, what is the priest doing among them? A parish priest gives himself in love to his parishioners, as they need it for their growth in Christ. Well, once I retired, I lost that ever-present, ever-demanding way of befriending people. Most of my former parishioners were quickly out of my life. A few have kept up our bonds. As another wise and good parish priest, Fr. Lou, said to me, “Paul, once you retire, most of your parishioners will forget you. Even ones you thought were close friends. It stops when you retire.” He was right. A few friends remain, but far more disappeared from my life. In reality, I retired and was removed from their lives. And so I am virtually alone.
Hence, when I moved to Sheridan, I came without friends, and without my avenue to make friends: active priestly ministry. Fortunately, I have two former parishioner-friends in the area from my short stay in Kalispell, Steve and Carol; otherwise, I came to an area knowing virtually no one. Soon Steve and Carol and I began a form of priestly ministry by setting up and sharing in an adult faith class, in which we listen to one another and communicate our lives in Christ Over time, I may be open to doing a little pastoral work in parishes, but that remains to be seen; I resist getting swallowed up in diocesan politics in any way. To use the cliché, “Been there, done that.” My remaining time on earth is too short to waste with petty jealousies, rivalries, liturgical squabbles, doctrinal modes of existence, and so on. Thanks be to God, I am a free man: free to seek God in love and in truth. Well, I’m free to a degree; everyone has his or her baggage that weighs one down. Part of my baggage is the need for genuine friendship; it is difficult to find, and surely so for a homeless wanderer in this passing world
And so I remain a Benedictine monk, one called to “seek God” either in community, or in solitude, or in a balanced life doing both. Now is the time, it seems, for me to seek God in solitude and peace as foremost in my life. I will still have some contact with former parishioners, but above all, I must keep learning to “be alone with the Alone,” and to find my center and my joy in God, beyond knowing, in searching love. To this end, I know of several foremost activities for me:
to pray as I am able to do so;
to study—seeking God through the writings of philosophers, prophets, saints, and others;
to write to assist myself and others on the journey of the soul into God.
Finally, I am no hermit, nor was I meant to be. I need and value good friends in Christ. Love is the way by which one becomes one with God. There is no other way. My present task is to find a workable balance between seeking God alone and sharing Christ with others Getting this balance right is my foremost task now.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
14 January 2020
All of my writing, like my life, is experimental. I am ever on a journey. We all are—through space-time into God. That is the nature of life. Whether I write below is more prose or poetry, I do not know, nor shall I plan. It may be formless, as fits the subject, the problem with which my soul now wrestles: the movement into the void.
My heart is a void. I would say a “vast void,” a large emptiness, but it may be a small void, but it is empty. When everything is dark and unseen, it may appear infinite, even if very small indeed. I am a little man, not great-souled, not significant, nearly fully unknown to the dying crowds—and that is the way I want it. Fame or attention would defeat the kind of life to which I feel and am drawn. But this also is true: every human soul borders on God, is in God, and God is boundless. Hence, in reality, the soul is boundless in God. Vast indeed is the human psyche, and how mistaken are those who treat the mind or soul as if it were a bounded, limited “thing.” Truly to know any human being well, one must also know God, who is the bonded partner with a human being. More on this issue at another time.
Now I seek to enter into the void of my heart, the wasteland of my soul, if I may say so. There is no way I could survive as a hermit or in strict isolation. Why not? Because I intensely need human companionship, communion heart with heart, mind with mind in God. Although a loner in the sense of avoiding crowds, social activities, parties, committees, and other things that have no attraction to me. I am not a loner in the sense of being a man who could spend three weeks in strict solitude, and be happy doing it. When a friend recently shared some issues in his heart with me, I said, “Now I feel on cloud nine.” What did I mean? I feel communion—a most delightful communion—when friend opens up to friend.
As a child, I was on a number of occasions punished by being placed in complete isolation from any human being. No one would or could speak with me. My father apparently knew how much I loved being with people and communicating. So when he considered it right or just to punish me, he did it in two ways, usually combined: he would hit me with his hand or with a flat garden hose; and then he would isolate me in a corner, or in a car with no one speaking to me, or in the basement, or in a room by myself. On happier occasions I was isolated without being hit first, but often these two forms of punishment were combined. Forced to sit alone, and feeling rejected and shunned, I wept. Even when I stopped crying as I aged, I wept inside. Now some of these tears flow out: years of pain held in.
This isolation may or may not still affect me, but I think that it does. If someone wants to punish me or “teach me a lesson” as my father would say, he or she can do so by refusing to speak with me, for us not to listen to each other, to be together. Isolate me and I feel as though I am in hell. That is a part of the void in me, and part of the personal “baggage” I must carry, day in, day out. It is part of me.
I am embarrassingly needy of human communion. The very threat (not intended as a threat, but felt as one) that my monastic superiors would require me to take vows as a hermit wrecked havoc in my life. It scared the dickens out of me. Ask my friend, Sandra, who witnessed what I went through several years ago when superiors were planning for me to become a hermit. Or ask Fr. Lou, my one priest friend in the Diocese of Great Falls, who said to me on several occasions, “Paul, you are not a hermit.” No one who truly knows me could think that I could be happy living alone and in isolation from human beings—especially from having a few truly close friends. And if one is so needy of real friendship, why deceive oneself with the name of “hermit.” It is unlikely enough calling me “a monk.” As I was told in my monastery, “We do not have a charism for friendship here.” It was evident that I needed close friendship, and several monks let me know that, as far as they were concerned, that need or “charism” excluded me from being a genuine Benedictine monk. Note well: I do not live in the monastery to which I took solemn vows. I simply “do not fit in,” to use the words so often applied to be at St. Anselm’s. And rightly so. I do not fit into the tight boundaries and conformities of Benedictine life.
Out of the utter blackness in me, the void that is painful and ever-present, I know with everything in me that I need one or a few truly good, reliable friends in life. With close friendship, I feel that I am able to be the man God wants me to be. Without a good friend or two on life’s journey, heaven would feel to me like hell. All of the friends I made in childhood were stripped away after a few months, as I attended some eighteen schools in eleven states before graduating from high school. Where were my friends? Gone. I had my family members, with whom I was often caught up in strife and conflict. Such was my life. How, I ask, could such a wounded human soul be expected to thrive and be happy as a hermit? (Or perhaps as a monk in community, for that matter.) What were these monastic authorities thinking? “Father, forgive us, for we do not know what we do.” If someone truly wants to make me suffer greatly, then put me in strict isolation—or throw me into “a cell,” as monks call their rooms.
It is not that I cannot be at peace alone. Well, perhaps I cannot be. With the trust that I have one or two good, reliable friends, I am not lonely when alone, because by love they dwell in my heart, in consciousness. When I pray, they are with me. When I read, they are with me. Without real human friends, I would not want to exist. Life in isolation would not be worth living. I utterly disagree with Jean-Paul Sartre, the French intellectual “existenialist,” who said, “Hell is my neighbor.” For me, hell is myself in utter isolation.
One can say, “But if you really believed in God, that would be sufficient.” Perhaps for Fr. Daniel Kirk, OSB, who was a wholesome and holy man. He had the benefit of a close loving family in childhood, and was not jerked around from place to place. But not for Paul McKane, who is neither wholesome nor holy, but in many ways, full of holes. These holes, these moth holes, eat up the fabric of my soul and character. That is just the way I am, whether I or others like it or not. I cannot be what I am not. “We all have our crosses to bear,” and “I am my own cross.” That much I know, and if you know me, you know how I can be a cross to you. Forgive me, friend.
I feel the draw to move by faith alone into the void, into what I often call “the divine abyss.” But it seems clear to me that I have one precondition for making this journey: I need to carry one or two dear friends in my heart, in consciousness, trusting that I am accepted and loved for who I am, and not because of some title or role, such as “priest,” or “monk,” or “man of God.” I am simply a wounded human being seeking peace and happiness with others in God.
Is it enough that Christ loves me? I think that for a while after my conversion to Christ, yes, that sufficed—or did it? I was horribly lonely and often did not want to exist when I was an undergraduate (ages 18-21). Once I was converted to Christ (age 20, I believe), I felt an intense sense of his presence in me and with me. Still, I needed human friendship. Yes, Christ; but also, a good friend.
“A friend is someone you don’t go to bed with,” as my former fiancée, Judy, would quote from her English professor. A friend is someone who stands with and for each other, accepting one another “warts and all.” A friend as friend does not seek sexual union, but spiritual union, a “meeting of the minds,” and attunement of the hearts. Or so I believe. A self-enclosed, secretive soul cannot truly befriend another human being. Or God.
I am willing to descend into the divine abyss in prayer—“truly to seek God,” in St. Benedict’s words—if and only if I am assured that I have a friend who may drag me out of the cave if I descend too far, for too long. If for a few days, Willy Boy is totally silent, someone better check on me, because that is not my style. God will have me silently in death, and then I will speak only in silence, as does God. For now, words. If you hear nothing from me, ask, “Is that man still alive?” And so I write for you, whomsoever you are.
Now I need to take steps to enter into the divine abyss. Let’s see what happens.
Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
14 January 2020
I chose as a title for this meditation, “into the void,” referring to the movement of the human mind into that which we call “God.” Now I use the term “God” in the sense developed in St. Anselm’s superb meditation, the Proslogion, one man’s address to God in prayer. St. Anselm’s develops with mystical-intellectual skill his insight: “God is that than which nothing greater can be thought, and greater than can be thought.” That “greater than can be thought” is what I signify as “the divine abyss.” No mind except the divine Mind itself knows God as He truly is.
At this time in my life, however, I do not feel so strongly drawn to “seek God” in prayer, meditation, or descent into the divine abyss as I often have. Perhaps my thinking and attitude will change in a few weeks—who knows? At least today—and let’s take one day at a time, for that is all we have—I prefer to seek that which can console, heal, bless my wounded soul, than to journey into the unknown depths of God. As I explained in the two previous blogs in this series, I am strongly aware of having a real need for good human friendship. How I ever thought that I could survive and thrive in a monastery where “particular friendships” were discouraged and frowned upon, I do not know. And what is the Socratic watch-word, which makes eminent sense to me? “Know thyself.” Or more fully from Delphi: “Know thyself: that you are a human being and not a god.”
This human being is not now desirous of going naked into the divine abyss. I am not ready for God.As previously explained, within my consciousness there is such an intense awareness of being moth-eaten, if you will, and full of holes, that I have no interest or ability to “empty myself wholly,” and “be alone with the Alone.” Often have I praised and used Plotinus’ watchword, to be “alone with the Alone.” Yes, I see that as a desideratum, as a great good. But I am not now capable of being truly alone. In fact, at this time I challenge the notion of aloneness. How can any human being ever be truly and completely alone? Is it not a contradiction, a denial of who and what we are?
I have often heard mention by Catholics and others of “private prayer.” That phrase never appealed to me, or made sense to me. How can a human being be “wholly private”? If I go to God in prayer, all that I know and have loved in any way is with me. That is how consciousness, how human reality works. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Yes, I can “go into my room, shut the door, and pray to the Father in secret.” Of course I can utter thoughts in my heart without giving voice to them. As I write now, I am sitting alone in a house with my dogs, who are not pestering me (because I just fed them, and Labs are gluttons, after all). I am in solitude to a degree, but am I really alone? I do not know you who will read this—if indeed anyone ever will—but you, unknown, not even imagined, are with me to a degree. I am writing for myself, yes, to clarify thoughts; I am also writing for you, the unknown reader, if in any way I can assist you in your life, and in your desire for God. We are all dying soon, given the brevity of our lives; so let’s get our acts together, eh?
Who or what is with me right now, other than myself as I am writing, and you, the possible reader? Who else is with me? By faith I trust that God is present—HE WHO IS—the God of Moses and of Jesus Christ. In other words, I trust that the unseen Creator of all that exists in any way is present in me, with me, even for me. So I am not at all alone. On the divine Presence in the search—in one’s daily life—I shall write later. For there are others with me now. My dogs who share my house—Moses and Elijah—are with me, as I am surely conscious of their being in the house. Moses I see napping just fifteen feet in front of me; Elijah went off to the bedroom. I am not alone in the house, but sharing it with “POSSLQ’s. That is one of those silly bureaucratic terms I found on a census form many years ago. It means, Persons of other sex sharing living quarters.” For me it means: “Persons of other species sharing living quarters.”
Who or what else is with me now? My webmaster Sandra, because I am aware that if anyone reads these words, it will be she. And then some former parishioners, especially Betty, who may browse this website. Who else? My friend Steve (who probably does not read what I write), is heading off today to help give a 4-day retreat to men seeking a closer friendship with Christ. I promised to pray for Steve as he sings and presents a spiritual talk to the men. Others are present, more fleetingly. Several are present with me in memory from beyond death: Fr. Daniel, who was my spiritual father in the monastery (and remembering him leads me to the present Abbot, James); my dogs Zoe and Rummy who died—they all come in and out of consciousness. My parents return often to memory from “beyond the grave,” or at least from their lives in this world, having passed into or through death.
In short, I am not alone. "I” does not exist in isolation,. What one calls “I” is a part of a functioning Whole, a part of reality. “I” has no independent existence; the belief in such an existence is in truth an illusion. Anyone who thinks that he or she is or can be a fully isolated, independently existing being is deceiving themselves. I have no being except in relationship to the physical world, to its ultimate cause (thank you, Aristotle), and to all whom I have known and loved in my life. And to others I am not even mentioning—for example, the cows I observed yesterday gleaning in the stubble fields. (I thought, “How hungry they must be, getting so little to eat.”)
So I am not truly alone. What about that which I called “God” above, or “the divine Presence,” or “the divine Mind”? I use the symbols (terms) without really understanding them. Who knows what “God” actually means, who or what God might be? We simply take our guesses. But how little, how weak is our understanding, our intellects. Much of the time in our lives, we are groping in relative darkness, whether we acknowledge it and admit it or not.
What is the divine Presence? How might God be present right now?”
Before proceeding, I feel a kind of tug or itch in my mind. Someone or something needs attention, something comes weakly yet pressingly into consciousness. It is you, a friend. I need to keep suspending that awareness for now. There will be a time to attend to you, but it is not now. I chose to suspend, so let me live my resolve now. LORD, I surrender them to you—all of them, and myself as well—here and now. Be it done to all of us as You will. Takes us to yourself in your way, your time.
Yes, I can try to suspend awareness of you, but even if you died, how could I not recall you to mind, as long as I am able to recall? So please, just sit quietly over there, and let me proceed. I love you and will not forget you. I hope. If I forget you, I’ve probably lost my mind, or at least my memory. For now, however, please sit still and let me return to awareness of simple Presence. If I am able to do this at all…. Getting sleepy. I shall stand and walk about to wake up.
At this time, I am not ready or able to seek God’s Presence quietly in prayer. The loneliness, the emptiness in my soul is great enough to cause constant interior suffering. It is part of who I am as a human being.
Of all the many things I learned between 1981 and 1991 at St. Anselm’s Abbey, to which I belong in solemn vows, words read to us when I was a postulant may come most often to my mind. Abbot James read an account of a Trappist monk, who on his deathbed said mournfully, “I never knew anyone.” Consider those words, as I often do. In reality, I really know no one well (not even myself, really). How can a human being who does not know another, and have a strong sense of communion with a fellow human being, truly seek God in prayer? How can an empty heart reach out in genuine love towards God, as prayer requires? How can a human being without genuine, true communion with another being possibly commune with God? What would that be? It would be an illusion, I believe, although I could be wrong, as I so often am.
I say, on the contrary: the best and perhaps only true aid in seeking God’s friendship is to have a profound and lasting human friend. Aristotle teaches that such friendship is possible if and only if a human being befriends himself—and that, says the Philosopher, means that he loves his intellect, the divine within. Or such is my reading of Aristotle in Books VIII and IX, both on friendship, in his superb Nicomachean Ethics. What happens to those who barely know that they have an intellect, or what it might be? What do they have to befriend in themselves? Their desires? Their lusts? Their imaginations? Their “personalities”? Their bodies? What is truly lovable in a human being?
In sum, I am not ready to depart on an adventure into God, because I lack a genuine and lasting human friendship, and I have not properly befriended the divine in me—that is, the intellect, the divine within reason. So although I am not wholly alone, as explained above, my soul is a spiritual wasteland, a void, that is not truly ready or able to advance on what St. Bonaventure called “the journey of the mind [intellect] into God.” I need to examine the wasteland, the emptiness in my own soul.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
16 January 2020
The previous blog led me to introduce several themes: that the “I” or oneself is never completely alone; that I experience within myself a real emptiness, a void caused by lack of enduring friendship; that Aristotle claims that true friendship is grounded on proper love of oneself, which means loving one’s highest or noetic self, the intellect, or the soul’s participation in the divine mind. I am seeking to understand my own soul before assuming that I am truly ready to “seek God” in the monastic sense. As things stand, I consider myself neither capable nor worthy of truly seeking God. But I can also add: That is true, but one must be careful. For the divine that a human being seeks is that which is sought as a response to being sought by God. The ever-present one who is experienced as “shining in” to consciousness is understood to be the divine Mind; and this divine Mind or Intellect shines into our minds whether one is worthy or ready or not. God is God and the light of our minds, whether we acknowledge his Presence or not.
In short: A man’s search for God is fundamentally a response to the experience of being sought by God. And the God who seeks is experienced as an undefinable Presence to the soul or consciousness. This claim is not meant to be “theological” or “doctrinal,” but experiential: it is grounded on concrete experiences presumably available to every human being precisely as human beings. What is required could be called “faith and love,” but for the present, I see it as obeying the Delphic inscription so beloved by Socrates: “Know thyself.” The self that is known is not a separate “I,” but consciousness participating in the Whole of reality, from the divine First Cause or Creator down to physical matter that lies all around us. We are partners in the mystery of being, not separate “egos;” this insight informed philosophy and all spiritual writers of whom I am aware from the most texts available into the 17th century, to the French philosopher Descartes, who begins with a radically separated self or ego, and then proceeds to “prove” the existence of the world outside of consciousness, and to “prove” the “existence of God.” In a more grounded, proper sense, not only does God not “exist,” but human being does not just “exist” (stand out in space-time), but participates through consciousness, through psyche or his soul, in the whole range of being, in all of reality in which we share by “body” and “soul.” This participatory experience will be explored subsequently. For the present, I return to the experience of the void within the soul.
I concretely experience in myself a deep vast void, an interior emptiness that is largely unknown and hence unloved by anyone—including myself, and such friends as I have. We shall explore this stressful or distressful reality, but also suspend from it at times. For the emptiness within is not the entire picture, nor the most important part, although at times it surfaces in personal trials and storms, and presents itself as all-important. Even in times of tension, one should do well to recall that the human soul is not only a wasteland, a void, as taught by so much of modern thinking since at least the seventeenth century (Descartes, Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, and many others). In exploring the psyche or consciousness, one should not begin with oblivion: with forgetting the whole of which one is conscious (again, Descartes’ and modern thinking’s fundamental spiritual-philosophical mistake). Rather, the explorer must not forget, but remember what s/he has experienced throughout life. Hesiod (c 8th century BC) and Greek thinkers after him wrote of the importance of Mnemosyne, remembering, as a primary duty of the human soul. (Here I simply point out that in Greek myth, as in Hesiod, the Muses—modes of divine Presence that inspire human beings—are the offspring of Father Zeus and Mnemosyne, divine Remembering. I shall explore this fascinating insight at a later time. And I hope and trust that the Muses will inspire me to remember to do so, singing to me of the wonders of the gods in reality, if I be permitted to write mythically. (But then again, in our age of scientism and factualism, myth is often taken too literally. For examples, listen to how Christian and Muslim fundamentalists approach their myths.)
It should be helpful to bear in mind fundamental reality as experienced by everyone who refuses to forget what has been experienced. Regardless of whoever one is, however wounded or deformed by sufferings (whether inflicted by others or from one’s bad choices is not the issue) the truth of reality remains indestructibly: that which is usually called “God” is radically Present. And this “God” is radically present and available whether one likes or not, attends or not. God is present whether one lovingly responds, defiantly rebels, or blindly forgets. Divine Presence, the I AM, is the substrate, the ground, of all of reality, including human consciousness. In other words, what we call “God” is ever-present, always available, loving the unlovable, healing the wounded, lighting up the darkness of the human heart and mind. Whether you and I are present with and to God or not, the divine is present to and with us. To forget this truth is, as noted, the foremost spiritual-intellectual disease of modernity: the refusal to remember, and to apperceive, fundamental reality. It is as if a man placed his hands firmly over his eyes, and said to you, standing right in front of him: What do you mean you are there? I see nothing at all. And such is the fundamental spiritual response that is so characteristic of what is called “modernity,” from about the 1600’s to the present. The game has gotten old, and in its wake is death: death of the spirit; death in concentration camps; death in abortion clinics. We refuse to admit what everyone knows well enough: human being is by nature a partner in God.
Hence, I experience two realities simultaneously, or back-and-forth, and I understand this to be the human condition, to one extent or another: On the one hand, I am consciousness of a void within me, of being a spiritual wasteland, empty and unlovable in myself; but on the other hand, the living and all-good God is freely present in me and with me. The unlovable is loved by divine Love. It would be untrue and ungrateful to refuse to acknowledge and to accept the divine Lover. Rejecting God’s loving Presence leaves one empty in the void of emptiness—in other words, living in the hell of one’s own making, or at least of one’s own being. That is a road not worth taking.
The abyss of emptiness that I am (the “ego”); and the divine that is present in me and with me. Both and. Not either or.
A practical example of how the balance in consciousness may be forgotten: This past week we studied chapters 5-6 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, beginning with the antitheses: “It was said of old….but I say to you,” and continuing through the Our Father, the warnings about “not laying up treasures for yourselves on earth,” and to the injunction “not to worry about what you will eat…Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” and so on. These are majestic, magisterial teachings, in which Matthew’s Christ takes the place not only of Moses, but of Yahweh-God who spoke through Moses. After the class, I felt disturbed, thinking that I had not done a fair job. Carol and Steve said that it was “fine,” a nebulous word that usually means, “Just okay,” or “Not so good, really.” Well, it was not so good. The interpretations of Christ’s teachings were reasonably accurate, but there was a major problem: taken out of context, with all of that heavy-duty divine law, God’s mercy and love easily get overlooked. I should have reminded them of the beatitudes again, or assured them of God’s love. Why? Because it is not balanced to present Christ as the Law-Giver, without also presenting him as the one who bore the cross for us, and who says at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Behold, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.” Unintentionally, I fell into the trap of the law-giving Christ, without balancing it with Christ the Suffering Servant, the bridge between us sinners and the all-good God. I spoke as a scriptural exegete (one of Matthew’s “scholars,” perhaps), and not as one in union with Christ. At least I sensed that something was wrong with my presentation. For how long have the Catholic faithful been presented with the Law-Christ, and not at the same time encouraged to take confidence in the Merciful One? If one hears only the Law, one becomes—or should become—painfully aware of one’s failures; that is a beneficial effect of “preaching the Law,” as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt chapters 5-7). But to be true to reality, balance is ever necessary. I will correct the imbalance this coming week, lest I continue the injustice to those present.
So Christ’s law makes us aware—painfully aware—of our shortcomings, our failures; but Christ’s love makes us aware—gratefully aware—that even in our unlovability, Christ died for us, and loves us, and is present with us and for us. As the Apostle Paul writes, “Christ shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5). The Apostle is saying in his words the same thing I sketched out above: God loves the human being even in our radical unlovability, even in our sins, failures, blindnesses. God loves the unlovable; and agape-love means that one in Christ seeks to do the same: love the other even when s/he is far less than noble and good and lovable. Finally, I think that it is much less difficult to misrepresent Christ using the letters of the Apostle Paul than using St. Matthew’s Gospel, unless the whole Gospel is kept in mind as the parts are studied, and that is difficult to do. There is nothing wrong with Matthew’s Gospel as such; on the contrary, it masterfully presents Christ as Master, Teacher, God-with-us, and the Suffering Servant who died to return us to awareness that I AM with you.
In short, even in our unlovability, Christ loves us. Christ is, remember, a magnificent symbol of the Presence of God in and with human beings. Hence, even in our unlovability, God utterly loves us and is present to us, with us. That is his nature, and his joy. As Julian of Norwich reports Jesus on the cross telling her in his agony, “if I could suffer more, I would suffer more.” Infinite and undefeatable is the abyss of divine Love.
Gladly will I descend into the void that is myself if it induces me to trust more fully in the unwavering, undefeatable Presence of God as love, mercy, peace, truth—all good, all at once. I will not descend into the abyss that is my soul without exercising faith as conscious awareness and trust, because then I find myself imprisoned in the hell of my own unlovable self. In a word: Not for me. I much prefer to live in the light of God’s loving goodness than in the darkness of my own unlovability. The Apostle Paul wrote, “When I am weak [in myself], then I am strong [in Christ].” I say: When I am unlovable in myself, then I am utterly loved in and by Christ. That formulation is truer to reality than the one-sided preoccupation with human sin, or just with divine love (“God loves everybody…”) without realizing how unlovable in ourselves we are, yet utterly loved. Once again, the balance of truth must be kept in consciousness, less than fall into despair in oneself or presumption that “I’m really a just and good person, as I am.” The miracle and power of God’s love shows up more fully in light of our genuine need for God. The awareness of our need for God requires that we are aware of the emptiness and unlovability within our own souls. If we admit our spiritual emptiness in ourselves, what happens? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God” (Mt 5). Blessed—supremely happy—are the ones who know how much, how deeply, they need divine mercy and love. Woe to those who are rich in themselves. As one man once proclaimed to me after refusing the sacrament of reconciliation before marriage, “I am a just man.” His poor wife, living with such a blind and self-satisfied man, which is another way of describing a fool.
And so into the abyss of my own soul I descend, not to remain there or to wallow in myself, but to become more aware of the awesome wonder of God’s loving, self-giving Presence. One must realize just how great is his need for God. If you want to become more aware of your need for God, consider how empty you are in yourself, how unlovable even you are apart from the divine Presence, which is sheer “grace.”
A prayer: Christ, light of my soul, illuminate me. You who are ever near, make me strongly aware of my need for you, and at the same time, give me firm trust in your eternal goodness and love even to me—that I am not only “a sinner,” but a badly wounded man from the battles and trials of life. I thank you, LORD, for my wounds, for my brokenness, because through interior suffering you teach me to draw on You, the divine healer, and to surrender myself ever more fully into your merciful, peaceful, indwelling Light. Amen.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
17 January 2020
Having just written on the tension in the soul between the emptiness within oneself and divine Presence, I was about to report and examine a concrete experience of divine Presence when I was a young man. I shall postpone analyzing that experience until the next section, because I feel nudged from within to give the Muses their due. I titled this series of short blogs “On seeking God in solitude and friendship.” Evidently, I work and write in solitude, as I live alone; but I am never fully alone, as previously explained: through remembering, others are present to consciousness. I have mentioned and will subsequently develop in sections the divine Presence, the great gift of God to everyman. But I also feel that it is just to honor the Muses, which in my case are concrete persons that have and do inspire me. When it comes to those Muses still living on earth, I shall not name names out of respect for anonymity. But for those Muses who died, and who still affect my consciousness through remembering, I may mention names. I do not wish, however to present a list, but more simply to adumbrate, to hint at a few of the Muses singing in my soul these days.
Out of gratitude, the first Muse I must mention is Fr. Daniel Kirk, OSB, whom I called “the midwife of my soul’s rebirth” in a poem I wrote many years ago. Fr. Daniel died in 2008, shortly before my mother. I am not conscious of his presence in me or to me, except through remembering his words and actions. I still revere him as a true man of God, a genuinely saintly man. Through Fr. Daniel, I know well what holiness is, and what it is not. Often Catholics will label someone as “holy,” but if you ask them what is meant, they are not much better Euthyphro. A holy human being is open, flexible, attentive, gentle, kind, meek, utterly self-giving, self-forgetting, and profoundly aware of the Presence of God in them and to them. A truly holy man or woman does not insist on his or her ways (I Cor 13), however dressed up they are as “church rules” or “the law.” And a holy person is not religiously fixed or “dogmatic” at all, but moves through symbols into ongoing divine awareness. Hence, one who is growing in holiness, or holy, is truly tolerant of others’ spiritualities, knowing well that the Spirit has many ways of working. Holiness is so humble that one cannot insult a saint, however much one may try. The holy person absorbs evil from those of us who are far less holy, far more full of holes in our characters. Through the saintly Fr. Daniel, I received more good than I can ever express. I show my gratitude by seeking to put up with the weaknesses and failures of others as Fr. Daniel endured my flaws for so long. He is a true man of God, and although not married and with no children in the flesh, can truly be called “a manly man,” who was so utterly courageous, self-restrained, able to endure much suffering without any complaint. I do not mourn his death at all; he was in God as long as I knew him, and I have no reason to think that such a union perished with death. And so I thank God for Fr. Daniel in my life, and will ever sing his praises until I die. Here is to a true, humble, utterly reliable, saintly man of God: to you, my beloved Fr. Daniel, and to the Christ you carried so humbly.
One who also comes to mind may not be the most prominent Muse in my consciousness, but s/he sings fairly loudly and clearly these days. In reality, this Muse may well be a composite of several persons, fused into one in my mind (as in my recent efforts to write tanka). This Muse seems to have opened up my heart through kindness and acceptance, through agape. In all honesty I am intensely aware that it is the Risen Christ working in and through this particular Muse, as it was with Fr. Daniel. If we could be said to be friends, it is only because each of us lives in a faith-union with Christ. Otherwise, we have little or nothing in common, so friendship in the sense of shared common interests hardly seems possible. All that really matters between us is our personal free-responses to Christ; the rest is passing. This Muse may have quietly touched my heart in ways that I do not fully understand; I am ever a mystery to myself. Or it may be that several Muses together throw my little gold into the fire to encourage writing; I do not know. It is odd, but God has his skilled craftsmen, and his physicians. And surely the divine Master has ways of working on each soul, as that soul requires, in order to lift it into heaven—that is, into a living awareness of the Presence of the I AM in the soul. What has strongly contributed to any effect this Muse has on me is magnified by retirement, when I do not have to produce essays, lectures, written works for parishioners, or some eight homilies a week. The Spirit used the gift of time to help me write, I think, and may have allowed this amusing Muse to aid in the process through the most sacred mystery of divine agape.
Several other Muses still play in my spirit; although they have also died in the body, they live on through their writings, and in me through what I have absorbed from their written works over time. Foremost among these Muses are the Apostle Paul (whose name I was given in the monastery), the philosopher Plato, the philosopher-scholar Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), Willam Shakespeare (the foremost poet and dramatist in English), and many others. But at least these four must be mentioned by name. Only one of them did I meet in person—Eric Voegelin; our three-hour meeting on my twenty-fifth birthday remains a highly influential event in my spiritual-mental formation These thinkers inspire me daily. Until my mind no longer works in this life, I plan to draw on them for inspiration, insight, wisdom. And on those to whom they lead me, too. Wisdom is shared, and generously leads from mind to mind. The true lover of wisdom embraces wisdom in all forms presented to the mind. That is one reason I genuinely appreciate the Buddha, “the enlightened one.” Wisdom is known in her children.
One more Muse must be mentioned: the master musician. The very word “music” comes from “Muse” in Greek. The master musician, the composer who has had an enormous effect on my soul since I was eighteen, is Johann Sebastian Bach. And his name fittingly means “brook,” or a “stream.” Through Bach’s music, streams of divine music pour into me. As I have written elsewhere, my powerful conversion to Christ was largely prepared by the music of Bach. Often when I write, Bach sings in the background—whether on speakers or within my memory. Many have been led to Christ through the music of this foremost craftsman. If my spirit is down, listening to Bach nearly always restores joy and peace in my soul. He is a supreme Muse in my life. (How often I thank God for the German people and their highly skilled craftsmanship in so many arts and sciences.)
Having mentioned some particular Muses at work in me, it remains to consider how they actually operate on consciousness. “Say, what?” That means: I wish to understand how these Muses affect my thinking now, affect my soul. It is not enough to “name names,” and give short descriptions. I wonder: How is my consciousness move / affected by these Muses?
I do not consciously imitate any one of these Muses in any coherent way. Each human being is unique, and trying to imitate another in that person’s particulars seems foolish to me. I can no more be another Fr. Daniel Kirk, or in any way like him, than I could be like the Oracle at Delphi or the Virgin Mary, or like some rancher-cowboy with a guitar. We are too different in life experiences, in our temperaments, in our moral and intellectual characters. God respects and uses our differences—and does not seek to remold us in someone else’s image. It would not work anyway. Each one’s unique identity is a magnificent gift of the Creator, and needs to be discovered and improved within its particular characteristics and gifts. Imagine if the Apostle Paul had sought to spend his life in leather-working (tent-making), or had taken up his hand at sculpture. I doubt that anyone would remember his name. Christ grabbed him and used Paul with his unique, intensely emotional, lively personality, and active mind. The Apostle Paul was so much himself (“in Christ Jesus”) that a foremost Greek scholar could write that after Plato, it took nearly four hundred years for anyone writing in Greek to come across as truly, as personally, as alive as Plato in his writings; and that man was not a philosopher, but the Apostle Paul. His Greek is unmistakable, although he had disciples and partial imitators (possibly in the Letter to the Ephesians).
And through the Apostle Paul more change was wrought in history than through nearly anyone else. All political and military leaders pale in comparison to the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul was the foremost carrier of the Risen Christ in the apostolic generation, and his letters written for particular occasions have in turn moved and inspired major spiritual outbursts to the present. Socrates had his Plato, and Jesus had his Paul. “I have been co-crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I (ego), but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith-union with the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2). Not much in human history compares with such words for their transformative effects.
I would add for a young person who talks naively and vaguely about wanting to “change the world” (mindlessly quoting Karl Marx): Do you want to “change the world” (as if one could do so)? Then change yourself by opening up your spirit to the Risen Christ, and allow him to work in you and through you, as did Francis of Assisi for one—and as did the hidden saints, such as Fr. Daniel Kirk. “Not I, but Christ in me.” Such is the essence of genuine Christian spirituality. Very simple: Not doctrines, rituals, or sacred books, but the Risen Christ in a human being who responds wholeheartedly. Or to state the same experience in more philosophical, less specific terms: what matters most is that a human being keeps responding to the divine Presence as he or she is moved to do. God has many ways of working on a human soul. (And the Muses are among these ways.)
“This above all,” as Shakespeare wrote, “unto thine own self be true.” The self to which one must be true is not one’s private ego, one’s particular and self-centered existence—as is promoted by contemporary American culture. (Listen to the singing of pop musicians, and you are very likely to hear ego sounding large.) Rather, one must be true to his unique gifts in God, to the person or “self” that God restores in union with Christ. One must spend himself / herself as generously as possible. These Muses of mine make me aware that the Spirit of the living God uses each of his instruments uniquely. Our task is to surrender ourselves to the divine Presence within, to discover our talents and gifts, and then to pour them out generously until death. The greater the death to our own ego, the more fully Christ can employ us for good.
When I sit to reflect, to pray, to write, these Muses of mine are often at work. Translation into more typical symbolic language: the holy Spirit—divine Presence in and to a human psyche—often brings to mind words from one of these persons who has profoundly affected us: one’s “Muses.” Usually I do not have to search for “the right words,” although there are times when thoughts must be polished. Generally, as I reflect, some insight, symbol, phrase from one of these or other Muses comes to mind, and “out jumps this calf.” I have often wondered about how and why words come into consciousness. The process is mysterious and fascinating. However the process works, some of the words from one of the Muses mentioned, or from other Muses of mine, come into consciousness, and the words flow. I cannot imagine my writing if I had never studied Plato, the Apostle Paul, Shakespeare, Voegelin, or others. They have become a part of me; while thinking, their words may take new life in me. Thank God, these foremost thinkers took the effort to write, to share their own experiences and thoughts in a form which could later influence other minds.
One’s task is to “stock the pond,” as I have often put it: Study closely the best thinkers and writers, and then in time, these writers will have an affect on one’s thinking, way of living, writing. A person immersed in popular culture will strongly reflect popular culture, however superficial and transient it is. Listen to the speech of many people, and you hear bits of entertainment swirling around, like pieces of tin foil blowing in the wind.
One must discover and study closely the best writers, the greatest works of art, the finest musical compositions, if he or she wishes to embody and reflect the best. When I asked Professor Voegelin, “What allowed you to accomplish so much philosophically?” he answered, “I read the right books, I guess.” I have long interpreted his response as richer than it appears. Yes, Voegelin “read the right books,” and after responding, he placed into my hands a copy of Edward Norden’s Agnostos Theos, The Unknown God (as referred to by the Apostle Paul speaking in Athens according to his disciple, the evangelist Luke.) But the “I guess” in Voegelin’s response—a very untypical phrase for him—hints at a deeper answer, in the same way that Socrates and Plato could imply far more than they stated. Voegelin dedicated each of the five volumes of his masterwork, Order and History, not “to the best books I read.” On the contrary, these well-labored books were dedicated “Coniugi Dilectissimae,” “to a most delightful union.” Voegelin used the Latin phrase that hinted at several meanings. Literally, “to a most delightful union” or marriage indicates that he dedicated his works to a personal Muse, to his beloved wife, Lissy. But there is another meaning, as is typical of mystic-philosophers such as Plato, Plotinus, and Voegelin. The “most delightful union” is what allowed Voegelin to accomplish so much in philosophy. And that union was with what he often referred to as “the divine,” or “divine Presence,” or simply as “Presence.” Voegelin’s union was with the Muse of Muses: the living God himself. He was intellectually too humble to say it so directly.
—Wm. Paul McKane
17 January 2020
The last section (#5) in this series on “Seeking God in Solitude and Friendship” referred to the German-Austrian-American scholar and philosopher, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). I will share again several spiritual experiences I had while speaking with this man on 21 January 1976. With his permission, I visited him at his home off the campus of Stanford University where he lived in retirement from his years as a distinguished professor; he remained actively involved in philosophical research until his death on 19 January, 1985, at the age of eighty-four, respectable given his life as a scholar and as a man who enjoyed cigars. (On his deathbed, he dictated to his loyal secretary his last writing on God.) When I met Dr. Voegelin, he had just turned seventy-five, and appeared in good health. He was nicely over six-feet tall, not fat, and after years of being in America, still spoke with an unmistakable German accent. I was twenty-four at the time of our meeting, and working on my doctoral dissertation on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy: The Case of the Apostle Paul.” Of all the materials on the Apostle that I had read, I found Voegelin’s chapter in his Ecumenic Age (1974), “The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected,” to be the most thought-provoking. I considered myself highly fortunate to have been granted so much time with this formidable thinker. Throughout the three-hour conversation, he gave me brief answers; the burden was entirely on me to ask the right questions. I have often thought about and mentioned his response to my question, “What is the Holy Spirit?” He immediately responded with a question, “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” That remains the best single insight into the working of the Holy Spirit in a person’s mind that I have ever received. And by asking his question—itself evidence of the Spirit by Voegelin’s own account—the philosopher validated my preferred approach to the things of God: not primarily religious practice, nor doctrine, nor rituals, but a genuine intellectual search for the God who moves one to seek. I owe to Professor Voegelin an enormous spiritual and intellectual debt which I can best repay by studying his voluminous writings, gaining from them, and sharing anything I learn with others.
Voegelin’s question-response to me validated the search for God using the intellect, open to the Holy Spirit. During the same conversation, I had what may be one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. Unlike other experiences with which I was familiar, this one did not directly occur in my consciousness, although my consciousness was involved more than I realized for some time. What I saw with my eyes is difficult to put into words. While he was speaking, I perceived a powerfully bright light that seemed to be in and through Voegelin’s head. He was radiant, and it appeared as though light came from his head. He was not “transfigured,” or at least not as far as I know. The way I understood the experience, and still do, is that his intellect was penetrated by the divine Intellect, which appeared to me as illumination. He was reflecting, or better, embodying the divine Presence. What I have only gradually realized is that my own mind was involved; I was not a passive observer. Rather, I recall those words of Jesus to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, and the hears that hear what you hear.” I would say that by divine assistance, my mind was receptive to the experience of divine Presence illuminating Professor Voegelin. When I have read through various accounts of Voegelin by his students, I have not come across anyone who had this experience. My experience was genuine, and either others chose not to mention a similar experience (for whatever reasons), or did not have it. Although it may in some ways be risky to recount such experiences, I think that they bear retelling and sharing. In fact, as Voegelin told me, that is what the Apostle Paul would have done with his companions at night around a campfire: shared their experiences in Christ. In our culture, how many cheer loudly at a football or basketball game, and yet have never experienced a human being radiating the divine Mind, or would even care to hear about such an experience? Consider our choices. Even those who proclaim themselves to be “Christians” and can recount the story of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountain probably would have no interest in such an experience as I had with Professor Voegelin. Why? I think that most people like their “religion” safely tucked away in a book they can carry, or in a church where they feel “comfortable.” Canned religiosity is all-too-common in our age; indeed, that has probably been true for centuries, given the state of Christianity today. Finally, I do not assume that Voegelin was an exceptionally “holy man” in the religious or even spiritual sense. But he may have been; he was surely charitable, cordial, and patient with me (I add that, although at first his powerful and direct responses seemed off-putting and made me squirm as if under a very bright light, I quickly realized that the problem was in me, not in him.) Whether Dr. Voegelin was supremely good or not, I do not know, nor do I need to know; what I do know is that he had a very powerful intellect that was profoundly open to divine Presence. That is what showed up in the man, as it shows up in page after page of his voluminous writings—at least “for those with eyes to see.”
I do not doubt the reality of my experience. I know what I saw, and I am aware of how it affected me. That was the first time I saw a human being penetrated by God, illuminating divine Presence, but it turned out not to be the only time. It is a surprising experience—peaceful, uplifting, and at the same time guiding. It shows the participant “the path of life.” I am far more likely to listen to, believe, and respect a human being in whom I have experienced divine Presence than in the kind of soul that is embittered, close-minded, self-enclosed, self-absorbed, or religiously doctrinal. No doubt many persons who encountered the Buddha or Jesus or Francis of Assisi, to name three well-known cases, had life-changing experiences in and through these spiritually intensely alive human beings. If I may say so, that is how God works in us and through us for each other.
Question: Is the divine selectively present, or always present in human beings? Is it possible that the divine is ever seeking to fill or flood human consciousness, but all-too-few cooperate? Voegelin often claimed in his writing that his experiences were not exceptional. It may be that some men and women are far more responsive to the divine Presence than others; and that the more one responds, the more powerfully present God becomes in that person. In this way, man’s will, human cooperation, is a necessary partner in the divine-human action, and human freedom is taken into account. If this is true, and I think it is, then we can maintain that God does not just haphazardly select a few “blessed souls” in whom to dwell. Rather, to anyone who listens, opens up, obeys, such extraordinary experiences show us what is possible by “faith working through love,” to use the Apostle Paul’s phrase. I will add, however, that there are indeed extraordinary modes of divine Presence, and of divine gifts. Moses is an exceptional human being in history, and to that I would add some of the great prophets, such as Jeremiah; the Hellenic philosophers; the Buddha; Confucius; the Apostle Paul; and most especially, Jesus of Nazareth. What they experienced can, to some extent, be replicated or perhaps more dimly experienced in other human beings. The divine opportunity—grace—is freely available; our task is to accept that grace, and to live it faithfully unto death.
The Apostle Paul, who knew much about extraordinary spiritual experiences, writes: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace [Presence] of God that was with me (I Cor 15:10). God’s favor and free Presence comes to many; a few work extraordinarily hard, employing the gifts given at every opportunity. Perhaps these are the ones in whom God’s Presence, his “glory” shines out most especially. When I consider such men as Plato, the Apostle Paul, Thomas Aquinas, William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Eric Voegelin, their extraordinary efforts—their nearly super-human efforts in their respective fields of endeavor—stand out. It is not enough by any means to be “highly gifted” with divine gifts or human talents; one must spend his or her life tirelessly in using these gifts. And then God’s glory shines out: “Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to you be the glory,” in the words of Psalm 115. We would all do well to reflect on the parable of the man who buried his one talent in the earth, believing that the Master (God) is harsh, and feared his punishment (Matthew ch 15). He squandered his life.
That I have sufficiently used divine gifts, I truly doubt. I have squandered opportunities to study, to learn, to write, to teach, to pray, to do charitable deeds. But I also trust God’s mercy, and know that he has compassion on those of us who labor under emotional, mental, or physical burdens, as so many do. Then again, it is astounding to see how some men and women have risen far above their various handicaps, and achieved much. So rather than offer excuses for my lack of dedicated work, I should now seek to apply myself better to using whatever gifts I may have. I am ever conscious that my time on earth is quickly running out. “Out, out, brief candle…”
University studies and teaching occupied my life from 1969 until I entered St. Anselm’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Washington, DC, in 1982. (I had been teaching at the Catholic University in DC before becoming Catholic.) After undergraduate studies at the University of Washington (1969-1972), I pursued a doctorate at Indiana University (1972-1974), but decided to leave after earning a Master’s Degree with my thesis, “The Gnostic Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Professor Voegelin—to whom I sent a copy of the thesis when completed—called my “methodology of recourse to experience” “impeccable,” which to this day remains the highest honor I have received, for it came from the man I consider the greatest philosopher of my lifetime.
During the period of my life that I spent pursing doctoral studies and writing my dissertation in political philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1974-1979), I had the conversation with Professor Voegelin, noted above, as well as some other special spiritual experiences that in retrospect were preparing me to give my life to “seeking God” in the peace of a Benedictine monastery. At the time, I barely knew that Benedictines existed, or what or who they were, if I knew the name; indeed, I was not Catholic, but a Lutheran Christian.
One Sunday morning during our Lutheran church service, an extraordinary experience was granted. As usual after the sermon, the congregation rose and sang words from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy spirit from me” (Ps 51:10-11). As I was singing the familiar response on this occasion, suddenly it occurred to my mind that when the psalmist (“David”) prayed these words, he had a sense of already being “in God’s presence” (or why would he have asked, “Cast me not away from thy presence”?) At the moment I realized this, I became intensely aware of God’s presence. I could barely remain standing, and sat promptly with the congregation when the singing ended. The experience took several forms. First, I felt that I was no longer singing “on my own,” but was being “sung through,” as if my voice was being used by the divine presence. It sounded like me, was my voice, but I was not the one “doing it,” or powering it; it came from the Presence, which I interpreted to be God. At the same time, I felt overwhelmed by the Presence, which felt as though it was both inside me, within my mind or conscious awareness, and at the same time, radiating out of me. It felt as though a powerful force field was in me and through me. (Later I surmised that such experiences lay behind painting “halos” around saints—artists were symbolizing the experience of divine Presence.) While caught up in the experience, suddenly I thought, “This is neat. I wonder if others know what is happening to me?” As that thought arose, the experience of direct presence faded; as I let go of the thought about what others may have thought and attended to the direct presence, it again intensified. (Later I interpreted this movement as the tension between my pride and simple divine grace.) I do not know how long the experience lasted in external time, but perhaps one or two minutes. Within the experience, it was “forever,” so intense was it. It was an intensely joyful, awake experience, I must add. I interpreted it to be an experience of eternity within bodily time; it was not a “temporal event” with a cause in space-time. After the intensely personal experience ended, “the word of the Lord” welled up from my depths, and into consciousness. It came right out of my “center,” or “spirit,” if I may put it that way. I did not hear any external sound, but my thought was being used by the divine speaker, just as my voice had previously been used. I never forgot the words I heard: “Your life work is to have such experiences and to seek to understand them.” The language was English, the “voice” was my own, the words chosen reflected my own intellectual formation and consciousness, but the source and authority within them was unmistakably from what we call “God,” or “the LORD.” This would not be the only time in my life that “the word of the LORD came to me,” using the prophet Jeremiah’s favorite phrase. When you hear such a word or utterance, you will know it. The authority and source are self-validating. It would take a serpent to ask, “Did God really say…” (Genesis 2).
In prayer, meditation, study, preaching, and in such writings as I am now doing, I have sought to understand the experiences granted. My ignorance and perhaps pride leave me unworthy of adequate understanding; but God knows the truth of what happened (as the Apostle Paul wrote concerning his “ékstasis” or being taken out of the body, recounted in II Corinthians chapter 12). I should add that in preaching Christ during my years of active priestly ministry, I drew on such experiences to help me understand Christ and his teaching, although I usually avoided referring directly to such experiences in homilies (although I made a few references in adult faith classes, and in writings over the years). The New Testament Gospels and letters are replete with similar and more astonishing spiritual experiences (and most notably, perhaps, Paul’s vision of the Resurrected Christ), which make no sense and are usually overlooked or treated in a literalistic way by those who have not in some genuine ways “tasted.” Such experiences have gradually purged me from being a “doctrinal Christian,” or from being overly attached to liturgy, ritual, Sacraments, “the Bible,” or “church authorities” (as if they are God on earth). What matters most is that human beings encounter the living God, and share their loving responses with others through charity. Again quoting the Apostle Paul, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love [agape]” (Gal 5:6). Loving trust in God working through love—charity for “one’s neighbor” is what matters. The rest is relatively insignificant, and yet so many make so much of these things. Frankly, it has been disturbing to see what has happened within organized Christianity, and how often the priests and supposed “ministers of the word” seem not to understand what they are supposed to be doing. Again, they should heed the Apostle: “My little children, with whom I am in travail, until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
As previously noted, in my search to respond to God I entered a Benedictine monastery in 1982, and was clothed as a monk, and given the name “Paul” by my Abbot. Out of a desire to serve others in need, and frankly a willingness to die in battle (there was much talk about “body bags” as we first faced Saddam Hussein), I entered the U.S. Navy to serve as a chaplain during the First Gulf War (1991). The war ended quickly, I was sent to Okinawa, Japan, with our Marines, and then continued to serve in active priestly ministry until retirement in 2018. I remain a monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, but am, fortunately for them and for me, permitted to live and work “outside the walls.” And so I live and write in my beloved home state of Montana.
As previously noted, I have little doubt that I have not adequately lived up to the divine assignment—have not avidly sought to understand the experiences granted. When a man or woman fully surrenders to the grace granted, s/he produces the kinds of writings we see in Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, the Gospel writers, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Voegelin, not to mention the active saintly lives (and contemplative writings) of St. Francis and St. Claire, of Meister Eckhardt, of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so on. Their divinely-granted experiences (“graces”) were not squandered, although I suspect that each of them would humbly say that they had not done all that they could have done in response to God’s action in them and for them. The worthy response to divine action is nothing less than total self-giving back in love. It is endless.
By way of conclusion to this six-part essay or blog, I raise a question: Where do I go from here? I still feel inclined to write, to seek to understand divine workings in human beings. For reasons I may not altogether grasp at this time, my preference is to write poems or short imaginary works of literature, rather than continue writing in essay mode (as offered here). Only by writing will I see what emerges.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
18 January 2020
Spirit of divine Love, bring back to my mind and heart
The memory of my love for my father,
Now deceased, beyond the agonies of time.
Carry my soul, Spirit, back in time—ever present in you--
When I was a small child in a small town
In the Dutch country of Pennsylvania,
with cows and sheep and horses in the beautiful fields--
On the beautiful rolling hills with those earthen smells.
He was a family doctor, a general practitioner, and husband,
The father of the three of us, all who loved him.
To my father I now speak through the Spirit, remembering:
Daddy, I utterly adore you, and am not ashamed to tell you.
I think the world of you, Daddy.
In my own little-boy way, I worship you.
For You and Mommy are everything to me in my world--
You are my world, about all I know, with Jeanie and Sandy.
You are more than a hero to me, you’re a great hero.
You are all good, and gentle, and kind, and very smart.
And when you play with me, I feel sheer delight.
When you laugh with me, and tease me, I feel so good, so proud,
Merry and light is my heart. Joy is all I know.
When you draw near to me, Daddy, I feel safe.
When you correct me, I want to obey and please you.
And when I’ve done wrong, I still feel your love for me.
I hear you whistle, and my heart flies like a bird.
When I am hurt, you bind up my cuts and scratches,
And give me vitamins to make me strong.
And hoagies, sauerkraut, spaghetti, meatballs.
And best of all, fried chicken and beets,
With a bib so I won’t make so much of a mess.
I am growing up, Daddy, with the help of your love.
You will be very proud of me one day, I know.
By your love, I will become a good man, just like you.
Because of your love, I will be strengthened for life’s hardships.
When I kiss your stubbled cheek, I feel safe at home.
When we play rumpty-dump in bed, and you tickle me,
I squeal with sheer delight, feeling so utterly loved.
Is it any wonder I sing in my sleep, as you told me?
You call me “Willy,” and “Wormy,” names I love.
You have made me a very happy little boy,
And I love you more than words can ever say.
Now the Spirit of divine love brings me back into the present,
And lets me feel from where I am now:
If I cry, thinking about you, Daddy,
These are tears of gratitude mixed with pains released.
The years are past, and you are utterly gone from this world,
But not from our hearts and minds—with your children, you abide.
We remember, and we love, each in his / her own way.
I see so much of you in me now, Daddy,
That I can truly say: My father lives in me, and I’m very thankful for it.
My goodness, I am so like you in many ways, especially in mind.
Thank you all for that you gave me, and keep giving me;
All for all that you mean to me.
My most beloved father, I will love you until I die, I promise you.
“You have restored the joy of my youth.”
06 Jan 2020 Traditional day of Epiphany
I just completed a short blog on “Getting out of prison,” in which I analyzed rigid ideologies affecting the minds and actions of many persons in our uncivil-civil society. I urged self-examination and humility as means to “get out of jail free,” to escape from the prisons of our own making, or of our own choosing. Now I seek to turn reasoned analysis on myself, and wonder if what I am teaching, writing, and living may be for good or for ill.
We begin with questions. What if I am genuinely mistaken about “the Bible,” and it really is or at least contains “God’s Word,” which one may read and discover? Well, in reality I do believe that there is much wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and that anyone could gain much from reading them intelligently and thoughtfully, and apply what they learn to how they live their lives. The problem as I see it is in effect absolutizing the Bible (or the Qur’an) as unquestionable truth which must be accepted uncritically. It is the lack of thought about what is read, the lack of actively questioning its truth and place in one’s life, that most concerns me.
Second, regarding Catholic institutionalism, am I wrong to claim that the Church is not in reality as “holy” as it claims to be? Am I wrong in criticizing the notion that “Jesus founded the Church,” and set the hierarchy in place, as God the Creator set the stars in the heavens? And what underlies my impassioned criticism of Catholic clergy anyway? The short answer is this: I and no few others have experienced evil committed by Catholic clergy, and even more evil committed by bishops or by Rome making excuses for evil-doing clergy, and covering up their crimes. At the same time, many Catholic “lay persons” simply refuse to see and to deal effectively with clergy who have neglected their spiritual well-being, preached blather to them, deceived them, stolen from them, abused their children, and so on. Anger in me is aroused by the evils and deceits in the churches, all covered up beneath a plastic halo of holiness. The wrongs done to unsuspecting persons and the attempts to continue the evils under cover of “confidentiality” and naked denials should, I believe, awaken the wrath of pacified, often non-thinking Catholics. I personally believe and have said that the Christian community ought to slough off the hierarchy as a snake sloughs off its skin. On this point I may be wrong. (My goodness, could I be wrong? You bet!) And I admit that trying to reform or remake the hierarchy of the Catholic Church seems to lead nowhere, and perhaps achieves nothing good. The attempt may be a waste of time and even damaging, especially when there are at least some bishops and priests who do much good, and genuinely seek to build up Christ in the faithful. Not all clergy members are deceivers and thieves—but many are. Not every Catholic continues to sit passively in pews and unthinkingly accept evils done by clergy—but most seem to turn a blind eye to evil done in their midst.
Having made these points, is it now best to shut up? Is it futile and a waste of energy to criticize the hierarchy of the churches for the evil they do? Would it be better for me, and for others, to keep quiet and to mind our own business? Given how resistant to change Roman authorities have long been, are we just wasting time? Would it be more prudent just to seek God in the silence and peace of one’s heart, and either walk away from the institutional church or at least ignore it? Should Catholics abandon the institutional church for their own spiritual well-being? Or should they stay and seek to grow up, begin to assume responsibility for their own spiritual nourishment and growth, and speak out against evils in clergy as they arise?
Why am I angry because of human wickedness and foolishness, even done under the cover of clerical collars and pious assertions to be “other Christs”? What good comes from such anger? What good comes from the anger of “progressives,” Democrats, or Republicans, who spend so much time hating and attacking President Trump? The man has evident flaws; but who does not? Which President in our “modern history” has not had very serious flaws, and often been self-seeking, and loved power too much? As a political scientist and observer of politics, I cannot name one. If these men did not love power, why would they ever seek to be President (or seek any higher office)? The office of political leadership attracts men and women of a certain caliber: not only those who truly want to “get things done for the common good,” as they all claim, but who at the same time want power, fame, attention, financial gain, benefits for their friends and family members. Should we be surprised that as Vice President, Joe Biden practiced the vice of feathering the nest for his wayward and apparently screwed-up son with huge financial benefits? Should we be surprised that men in the oval office have sought sexual gratification even from young women within their grasp? Should we be surprised that Nixon sought to cover up the crime of the break-in at the Watergate? Or that FDR lied to the American people about the “unprovoked” attack of Japan on Pearl Harbor? Our leaders have been flawed, and often deeply flawed human beings. Do such characters deserve hatred? Is it worthwhile filling our own souls with venom at those we deem dangerous snakes? Are we Americans really so virtuous and good that we expect to elect truly virtuous men and women to the highest offices of the land? Would we even recognize or respond to genuine virtue? Perhaps we are too foolish and too self-absorbed as a people in history even to know who might lead our people in beneficial ways, without being scoundrels or “low-lifers” themselves. “We the People” seem to have become far less virtuous and deserving of good leadership than we believe. We are easily duped, because we are quite foolish.
“What about you, little man?” I know that I am not a virtuous human being—nor do I claim to be. I have never called myself a “just man,” or “a holy priest,” or a “good monk.” I am too aware of the wrongs I have done, and the good I have failed to do, to exonerate myself. Looking back on my life, there is not much of which I am genuinely proud. If I have done anyone any good in my life, it has been despite my flaws and failures, and because the all-good God can and does work in and through our human weaknesses. “Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” Why? Because we are not so good ourselves.
Although I know that I am neither learned nor wise, yet I write these little blogs. Why? Because I seek to share thoughts while being open to correction. Knowing that I do not have a poetic imagination, or handle symbols effectively, I still write little, mediocre or poor poems. Even though I am an impassioned man with considerable anger at injustice and untruth—as I see them—I still try to teach in some ways. Do I do harm to human beings? I am sure that I have harmed no few persons, beginning with my own family members since childhood. I can only hope that I do more good than harm; but in truth, I do not know. Nor do I hold myself blameless in any way. I certainly have never dealt with a Catholic bishop who seemed to find me anything but a pest, or worse; no bishop under whom I ever served said that I do a good job serving Christ in his people—the very thing which I sought to do. One bishop loudly and very angrily accused me of “dividing the parish” (in Kalispell, Montana), and quickly threw me out of his diocese. Together or individually, bishops and their priest personnel boards have awarded me no pension or health care in retirement. They have found me unworthy of any benefits. Nor do I ask for any money from any authority in the church—bishop or abbot—or from lay persons. I am well aware that by temperament, character, and beliefs, I do not fit well into the Catholic church, into a monastery, or into any institution. Authorities may well be right in describing me as a “trouble-maker.” And I have made trouble for some in authority, whether they deserved it or not (but I think that they did deserve questioning for their wrong deeds). As for what I believe, I was told by a priest in one diocese that the bishop there under whom I served considered me to be “non-Orthodox,” which I take to be a polite phrase for a “heretic.” I thought he was a kindly man, but entrapped in rigid dogma. No doubt he found my reservations about the dogma of “the Trinity” to be heretical. (At least he did not have me burned at the stake, as some bishops have done for those who question fixed beliefs.)
So what am I to do? I remain a Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, and I remain a Catholic priest. Am I proud of either position? Frankly, no. On the other hand, I firmly believe that I benefited much from being a brother monk of St. Anselm’s, and I genuinely respect and love my Abbot as a man of God. As for me, I am not worthy or suitable to live in the monastery, for my character is highly flawed, and I really am, as noted, a “trouble-maker.” I question what others do not want questioned. I am unable to live at peace with what I perceive as serious wrong-doing, deception, pretense, or unquestioned beliefs. Even as I consider myself a very poor example of being a Benedictine monk, at least I respect the life the monks attempt to live. As for being a priest in the Catholic church, here I feel much shame and disgust. We priests—myself included—have badly failed the people we were ordained to serve. Many of us are scoundrels, who steal, deceive, seek power, swallow all sorts of ideological nonsense and spew it out to others. Having seen what I have seen from some clergy, there is no way I could be proud to be serve among such men. On the other hand, I have known some wonderful and good priests—one of whom is now in prison for doing evil. And a real scoundrel and deceiver runs free to continue his deceptions, thanks to cover up from the chancery. How could anyone be proud to be counted among such human beings?
I look in the mirror, and I see a fairly old man, become rapidly older. I am thankful for my life, despite my flaws and faulty character, and despite my impassioned and unbalanced temperament. I have received much good from the all-merciful God—“far more than I deserve,” as Dave Ramsey would say. It is best that I live alone, so as not to infect others with my anger and refusal quietly to accept what I think are lies or deceptions. There is no way I could live peaceably with any human being, for I am not at peace with what and who I am; hence, I willingly and gladly accept living alone in relative isolation. And in no way do I want to function publicly in any church, or in civil society. Although no prophet or saint, I would probably be as divisive of human community as was John the Baptist—just on a smaller scale, as I am a much smaller human being than was John.
Finally, should I write and make public such statements? If not, why not? What is gained by hiding who we are? Can any good come from what I do or say? In truth, I do not know. But this I believe: “It is time for judgment to begin in the household of God.”
—Wm. Paul McKane
7 December 2019
Are you in prison, or perhaps just temporarily in the local jail? Or have you been living your life imprisoned, and do not even know it? So many have been imprisoned by their own bad habits and addictions for so long that they do not see the walls that close them in. And millions upon millions live imprisoned by ideologies of one stripe or another. They are trapped in their fixed beliefs. And they most likely do not know it, or willingly embrace their imprisoning beliefs, having no idea how to live as free men sprung from prison.
1. Institutional Prison: Often one must deal with at least three kinds of ideological prisons that may intrude on our everyday life. Possibly the least obvious of the three prisons, and probably the least insidious, is the prison of institutional life. It may affect and infect one’s thinking, loving, living. The type of prison I encounter often is what has been called “churchianity.” Among Catholics it is especially marked, because the “faithful” have been propagandized for centuries with the belief that in some non-rational, usually unexplained way, the Catholic Church is “the body of Christ,” or even “the Kingdom of God on earth.” Many everyday Catholics unthinkingly accept that the institutional church is “divinely instituted,” and hence shares to a high degree in divinity and in God’s prerogatives: holiness, unity, wisdom, truth, goodness. Many Catholics have unthinkingly swallowed the belief that their Church is itself a “holy” institution. Consequently, the “faithful” have often been unwilling and perhaps even mentally unable to criticize the wrongdoings of their institutional leaders—bishops, priests, deacons. The clergy have perpetuated the belief in the “holiness” of the church precisely because it produces more docile, uncritical, and willingly paying members. “One holy catholic and apostolic church” easily becomes a cover and a mask for an often highly unholy, non-catholic, parochial clergy. In short, many are the Catholic “faithful” who have been duped into unthinking acceptance of false teachings, foolish claims, and some wicked and destructive practices. If one doubts the truth of this claim, follow the news in our country, or elsewhere in the world, with exposés on one bishop or priest after another who has stolen from, deceived, molested, or badly treated the unsuspecting and all-too-accepting Catholics whom they supposedly “serve.”
2. “True faith” prison. There is a second kind of prison entrapping many in our midst, and this one also strongly affects the “body of Christ,” or self-declared “believers in Christ.” Among Catholics, it often takes the form of an unthinking acceptance of “Church teachings,” including whatever they happen to be told by pontiff, bishop, priest, or deacon. At times it shows up as “Father says,” or “this saint taught that,” or “the official church teaching is….” In each case, what is offered is an appeal to some supposed authority as “true,” without reasoned thinking and testing of the truthfulness of the particular assertions. It is usually more fundamentalistic Catholics who fall into this trap or prison, although the “progressive” wing, too, has been duped by some “leading theologian” who has “seen the light” and proclaims his “certain truth” to unsuspecting and gullible men and women; these “theologians” promise a “transformation of the world” and “revolution” through “social action.” And they fool many.
As bad as the Catholic ideological prisons are, one finds perhaps even thicker iron bars and heavier concrete walls among Protestant, evangelical prisons. Frequently one encounters “Bible-believing Christians” who seemingly have closed their minds and live imprisoned in “the Bible,” assuming and loudly proclaiming that “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” is in “the Bible,” and every word in the Book is “true,” and to be unthoughtfully accepted as “God’s word,” “God’s truth.” These “Bible-believers,” however well-intentioned they may be, however endearing their “personal commitment” and “personal relationship to Jesus” may be, are both deceived and unwitting deceivers of others. They are as imprisoned in their “Bible” as many Catholics are imprisoned in “the holy Mother Church.” It is sad and disturbing to see, but all-too-common.
If one questions some particular assertion of these “bible-believers,” such as assertions about “the Trinity of three persons,” or about “salvation for the elect,” or even about the unchallengeable truth of “the Bible” itself as the “Word of God,” one immediately encounters a mind that is imprisoned in rigid, unyielding beliefs: one assertion follows another, with no attempt by these biblical fundamentalists to stand back from the “Bible,” and question its legitimate claim to be “the very word of God,” and beyond critical examination. “The Bible says” takes the place of well-reasoned arguments open to the light of further scrutiny, examination, refinement, and possible negation. “It is true because the Bible says it is true” in fact amounts to the assertion that “the claim is true because I say it is true,” because each of these “Bible-believers” has her or own interpretation of what particular texts say or mean. Without reading the texts in their original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek—they claim with certainty to know and usually to understand what a particular writer intended to communicate. The worst of these tendencies becomes apparent when they flip open the Book of Daniel, or the New Testament Book of Revelation, and begin to pronounce on “things that will soon take place.” That the author had no conception of how history would develop, and what the future in truth would look like, seems not to have crossed their imprisoned minds. Nor would this point even register in the finds of these book-imprisoned people, because they actually believe that “God wrote the Bible” (or Qur’an) or at least “inspired” it so that it is all “true.”
A Caveat. Before progressing to examine political ideologies and their “true believers,” a few words of caution seem fitting. First, some of the prisoners of Catholic institutionalism and Protestant biblicism are well-intentioned, kind, good human beings and citizens. I do not wish to impugn their motives or their characters. But they are imprisoned in their beliefs, and I feel some human duty to warn them of their entrapments. Furthermore, as Aristotle wrote while sharply criticizing a particular teaching of his long-time mentor and friend, Plato, “We must prefer truth to friendship.” Yes, we must. Unfortunately, one often finds a relatively weak interest in truth among adherents of various “religions,” Christian or non-Christian. “Believers” often seem to have surrendered their human duty to seek truth to contentment with the various belief they have been taught—Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and so on. My own interest in truth requires me to examine their mental imprisonment in Churchianity, or Bibliolatry, or “Holy Qur’an,” even though I have genuine friends dwelling in these and similar prisons. On the other hand, I am aware of the danger of being too critical of mental prisons such as have developed in Christianity (and Islam) over the centuries. A human being who lives within an ideological prison rarely turns to reason, to philosophy, to mystical experience after the walls of the prison have been exploded, and he has “escaped like a bird from the fowler.” In this regard, the self-proclaimed philosophers of the Enlightenment did a great deal of damage to many persons. They dragged them into their self-proclaimed “enlightened state,” and left them with little or nothing on which to feed. They tore away the living God in the name of the “God of reason,” or “Enlightenment.” In fact, however, the western European “Enlightenment” was a period of intense intellectual foolishness, with some genuine light thrown on real problems. The various “philosophies” (in truth, non-philosophical ideologies) of the late 18th into the 20th centuries were largely destructive of traditional human life. Men hell-bent to “change he world” (young Marx’s coinage) brought much violence, bloodshed, and loss of meaning to real human lives. “Proclaiming themselves wise, they became fools,” and their foolishness often led to mass murder, or at least to the death of the spirit. Far better for a young man or woman to flip through their Bibles in search of “God’s word” than to live godlessly in a world presumed devoid of meaning. “By their fruits you will know them,” and many fundamentalistic Catholics and Protestants at least show their “beliefs,” mistaken though they be, in deeds of charity and human assistance. So a word to the would-be wise: “Let those with ears to hear, hear.” Others may sleep in their prison cells.
3. Secular and political ideologies.
The largest, thickest-walled, most destructive prisons in our midst are not found among churchy or Bible-believing Christians. Christian prisons at least have the benefit of being attacked from all sides in our secular culture, forcing their adherents to engage in some examination of what they believe, and why. The worst prisons by far are found among political ideologues, who range over a wide spectrum: from jihadist, gnostic Islam to “Enlightened intellectuals” to “Progressives” to absolutists and totalitarians of various stripes. Everyday we are bombarded by the intellectual terrorism of these “knowers” who have all the answers. They have “holy Quran” or “Science” or “Progress” at their backs, and they are as hell-bent as Karl Marx ever was to “transform the world” (Marx’s phrase from his Theses on Feuerbach, repeated by candidate Obama in 2008, for one example of recent usage). These political ideologues spew out their poisonous deceit on everyone, usually aided by complacent or even complicit cooperation from the loud mouthpieces of the mass media: television, Hollywood, propaganda-music, politicians, academicians, entrenched bureaucrats, and the like. In present day America (the USA), leftist, self-described “progressive” intellectuals and politicians utterly dominate the public scene with their obscene addiction to “liberating” political ideologies. Again, in this regard, a Muslim jihadist and an American university professor have far more in common than either of them suspects, or could admit: they have “knowledge” (or perhaps ideologically fixed “science”) that gives them “certainty,” and with this weapon in their minds and mouths and sometimes hands, they set out to force their “vision” of “truth” and the “good life” on everyone else. Woe to those who do not share their ideology, because they can be killed in one of at least two ways: murdered outright, as by ISIS jihadists; or have their minds and spirits murdered or at least vivisected by godless, secular, self-inflated “intellectuals,” whom we encounter throughout American society today. One cannot turn on the television without hearing some of these ideologues popping off about whatever supposed evil they are seeking to destroy or overcome, from “climate change” to “the cult of Trump” to “right-wing conspiracies,” when all the time these highly vocal “intellectuals” and “political leaders” are in fact the cultists of the occult, believers in their self-enclosed gnostic truth. The reason they hate their opponents, as is evident everyday in our country, is in part because they are convinced of their own “expertise,” “scientific knowledge,” superior intelligence, or their “enlightened state,” and of course their own “good intentions” and “compassionate hearts” to “make the world a better place.” They are, in effect, terrorists of the spirit.
The prison in which these ideological knowers live gives them the power and the right, they believe, to spew out their “learning,” and to force their views on others. Their most evident victims are the young, propagandized from earliest years in mass education all the way through “higher education” at our colleges and universities, in which genuine freedom of thought and of speech are persecuted and destroyed by these would-be totalitarians who dominate campus and social life. Whereas Catholic and Protestant prisons, briefly described above, are relatively minor in their effects on society as a whole, the political ideologues dominate American society and culture in nearly every aspect of our lives. They most infect the governing and learned “elites.” And rather than remain quietly in their prisons, and in their prison-worlds centered in Washington, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle—to name some of their most intense enclaves—these ideologues are rapidly creating an entire prison network in our country. They are busy building what amounts to an American Gulag Archipelago not restricted to prison camps, as in the former Soviet Union, but penetrating every home through mass media, internet, and our ever-new technological devices. Intellectual and cultural ideologues are building a “New Society,” and it increasingly looks more and more like the concentration camps of totalitarian regimes, only now with a higher degree of mind control.
4. What is to be done? First and foremost, each person must examine himself / herself, and honestly ask how unthinkingly, uncritically they hold to their most cherished beliefs. I do not hold out great hope that most will do this, because the prisons about which I am writing are largely self-chosen, and serve to give the inmate some sense of security and “certainty” in an uncertain and often threatening world.
Second, it is better by far for a “Bible-believing Christian” to study closely and to love the Gospel of John or the Letters of the Apostle Paul, then to abandon any concern for “the word of God.” It is better by far for an institutionalized Catholic to listen attentively to the gentle wit and wisdom of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, for example, then to reject the entire Catholic hierarchy because some bishops and priests have done evil and worked hard to cover their tracks. And it is better for genuinely scientific minds who value the scientific method to caution the enthusiasm of half-learned know-it-alls, and admit that many questions about which “progressives” rant are and ought to be open to study and debate. A strong internal awareness in each of us that we ourselves may be wrong in our most intensely held beliefs would go a long way to restoring some balance and sanity in our ideologically-diseased and damaged body politic. The wisdom of humility is the key to escaping from our prisons. “God alone is truly wise.”
—Wm. Paul McKane
7 December 2019
A note on stars, planets, the gods, and the discovery of reason
“One thing leads to another,” and one moment of wonder leads to more wonder. As Plato has Socrates declare in his dialogue, the Theatetus, “Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Philosophy, or the Greek word, philosophia, literally means, of course, “the love of wisdom.” One gains wisdom through loving it, and wondering at what is.
When I first let Moses and Elijah (my dogs) outside this morning, at 0130, I was immediately struck by the brightness of the stars. The sky was cloudless, the waning moon had not yet risen, and the stars and (I thought) some planets stood out, inspired awe, and provoked a few questions. “What am I seeing” I wondered. “Surely that very bright object in the southern sky must be a planet. If so, which one?” I surmised that it was Jupiter, which I have seen on a number of occasions. As I walked around my yard in the dark, I also remembered the ancient Greek story that one of the philosophers—Thales, I believe—was said to have been so enraptured looking up at the stars that he fell into a well. That account also comes from Plato’s Theatetus.
I wondered, “Which is that planet I am seeing in the southern sky?” A quick search using Bing online convinced me that it was not a planet, for no planet was visible in my location (not far south of Butte, Montana) at 0130 this morning. As the object was stationary, it would not have been a plane or a satellite. Well, it was surely not the moon. Hence, by deduction, it is a star. Which star it was I will search out in coming days, as I seek to learn which constellations are visible at my location at this time of the year. In youth and as a young man, I could identify a number of constellations. Now I recognize few, although I can clearly identify the Large Dipper (Ursa Major) as I lean back and gaze outside my living room window, when the electric light has been turned off.
And so I began to wonder about the names of the planets, and especially of Jupiter, which I was not seeing. Jupiter, as I’ve long known, is the Roman derivation from the Greek designation of the “chief god” as “Zeus Pater,” “Father Zeus.” Zeus, and derivatively the Roman god Jupiter, were thought of as the head god. For some reason, the ancient Romans named the second brightest planet Jupiter, reserving Venus—the goddess of love and of beauty—for what seems to be the brightest of the planets, when visible. In the Greek understanding, Zeus was not “from the beginning,” but was the son of Kronos (Chronos), the Greek name for a older god, and their word for Time (hence the origin of our word “chronology,” an account of time, of of a series in time). Again, the ancient Romans derived their names for gods and a large part of their fundamental mythology from the Greeks; as Zeus was the son of Kronos, so Jupiter was conceived as the son of Saturn, a Latin word thought to be related to a verb meaning, “to devour,” for “Time devours all things.” Saturn is devouring time, and his son, Jupiter, must confine him within limits, lest Saturn destroy all things.
The Roman thinker, Cicero, wrote c 45 BC in his book, De Natura Deorum, On the Nature of the gods, the following. Note how Cicero shows concern for real natural processes, and is not just engaging in mythical speculation for its own sake. For in reality, “Time devours all things.” Cicero writes: "By Saturn they [the mythologizers] seek to represent that power which maintains the cyclic course of times and seasons. This is the sense that the Greek name of that god bears, for he is called Kronos, which is the same as Chronos, or Time. Saturn for his part got his name because he was "sated" with years; the story that he regularly devoured his own children is explained by the fact that time devours the courses of the seasons, and gorges itself "insatiably" on the years that are past. Saturn was enchained by [his son] Jupiter to ensure that his circuits did not get out of control, and to constrain him with the bonds of the stars."
I would add to Cicero: Note that the divine Zeus / Jupiter must constrain Time (Kronos), the Roman Saturn, and keep its devouring within limits. The discovery of limits—and hence being-things or things—were historically essential to the discovery of reason, and of what we call “natural science.” Limited being has “a nature,” a way of being within limits. To know the nature of something, one must know its limits—not only what it is, but what it is not. In the words from Delphi in Greece that Socrates took as his watchword, “Know thyself; that thou art a human being, and not a god.” We are limited or bounded in ways that gods are not. The gods of the ancient Greek and Roman myths (among others) were not bound by time going forward, as they were understood to be “deathless,” or immortal; but they were bound by time in the past, as even the gods were thought to have a beginning in time, an origin.
The ancient Greek philosophers made a major discovery: there are not only limited beings in the world, or “being-things” (Homer, Hesiod), but “being itself,” unlimited. This significant discovery took place in the mind of Parmenides of Elea, born c 515 B.C. Parmenides was filled with wonder at unbounded being, being itself. (Note the “Unbounded” was already discovered and named by Anaximander, slightly before Parmenides.) Parmenides worked out in his thought the contrast between being-things, all of which are limited; and unlimited being, which is One, utterly simple, eternal, and divine. Now the concern with divinity was moved from the gods, who were still bounded or limited, and the unlimited being itself, or what Thomas Aquinas would later explain as the sheer act of to be, “esse per se subsistens.” At the same time, Parmenides was aware that he discovered being itself by a power at work in his own mind, in his psyche; and he called this power “nous,” or intellect, reason. By reason man becomes aware of unlimited being. Here we have a major, decisive breakthrough in the history of philosophy, but more fundamentally, in the history of human consciousness: Man or human being is that being-thing, that limited being, which becomes aware of unlimited being, the truly divine. The stars and planets were losing some of their shine to what was present in human being as human being, and in all of reality as being itself. The discovery of unlimited being, and its contrast to things with limits and hence “having a nature,” was a decisive breakthrough both for philosophy, and for what in time would come to be called “science,” or “natural science,” as it explores the limits in things and processes. Philosophy explores the unlimited; science explores the limited.
A further note on myths: There is usually far more meaning and truth to these ancient myths than one would guess. If one allows Positivistic bias to blind one’s mind, myths are “falsehoods,” untrue, and “primitive.” One would do well to know that myth is derived from the Greek word, mythos, which does not mean fiction or falsehood (that would be pseudos); rather, mythos means story, tale, myth. Ancient cosmological myths, tales of the gods, are stories, and our contemporary stories are myths. Movies are myths presented with pictures and sounds, actors and actions. So Greek myths were often about the gods, or forces of nature. What was the main purpose of the myth? Just as with our stories: myths are meant to communicate some truths about reality, and ultimately to explain the cause of things, and what we would call the nature of things—the way the world works, and why. I have often noted that frequently, there is more truth in stories (myths) than in literal accounts; so called “fiction” is often more true to reality than “non-fiction,” as I realized in childhood. So-called “fiction,” or myths, stories, can be profoundly insightful into reality. Consider for example the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, an ancient Hebrew story (myth). It says more about what it is to be human than probably any few pages of analytical text ever written. In a story, the writer or speaker is free to explore and express reality without worrying about “what exactly happened.” That a snake can talk, and ask, “Did God really tell you not to eat the fruit of this tree?" communicates profound insight into the susceptibility of human being to evil provocations; the fact that snakes do not talk is irrelevant to the meaning of the story—and hence to existential truth.
Often, myths or stories are rooted in concrete, everyday experience. In the case of ancient myths, insights into the workings of nature, of the divine, and of human being are expressed using divine personages, or “beings,” such as gods who dwell in the skies, or on Mount Olympus, and so on. The tellers of myths are not seeking to understand scientific processes, or what we might naively say, “really happens.” They saw lightning, and imagined Zeus the Father god in the sky hurling lightning bolts because he was angry (a belief encouraged, no doubt, by loud bursts of thunder). Or they saw a planet (literally, a “wanderer” in the night sky) that appeared red in color, and they associated red with anger, bloodshed, and war, and so they named that wandering body “Ares” (Greek) or “Mars” (Romans), and in both cases, the god of war. Or Mary, the virgin Mother of Jesus, understood as the carrier of divine grace and not as its origin, could be portrayed as the Moon, which does not generate light (as does the sun), but reflects it: “My soul magnifies the LORD; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1). Myths are means of communicating truths about reality. I often recall words attributed to Aristotle, the great lover of wisdom, in his relative “old age” (he died around age 62). The Elderly Aristotle wrote, “The older I grow, and the more I am alone, the more I love myths.” Why? We can guess: Because myths communicate much meaning and insight into reality succinctly—unlike discursive philosophy and science. Myths pack meaning into fewer words, or at least more imaginatively rich words.
The spiritual-intellectual break from myth to philosophy and its offspring, science—which occurred primarily and essentially in Ancient Greece, and elsewhere only following from the Greek breakthrough—was a major revolution in human history, in the history of the mind (in what Hegel would call the “history of consciousness”). Philosophy and science are still full of wonder and wonders, as are myths, but they proceed with the aid of a Greek discovery of the foremost significance: the discovery of nous, the divine intellect in human beings, and not just “in the gods.” Nous is the human mode of participating in the divine nous, in the mind of God.
I still study the "pre-Socratic philosophers" of Greece, and especially Herakleitos and Parmenides, as well as others, to observe this gradual discovery of reason, and the revolutionary effects it had on thinking and on understanding human being and our place in the Kosmos. Even the tales of the gods get “cleaned up” on account of being deemed “unseemly,’ as by Xenophanes, and later Plato. Poets such as Homer and Hesiod already helped pave the way for the break, but the discovery of reason within human being, our critical faculty, was decisive. One of the most helpful documents on the history of the development of philosophy out of myth is in the opening book of Aristotle’s so-called “Metaphysics,” on which I shall write at a later time.
And note, by way of contrast, that there is neither science nor a concept of “nature” as the givenness in reality in the Hebrew bible. Nor is their a conception of human beings sharing in the divine intellect through reason. But patterns in the world, and in what came to be called “history,” were observed, as in “animals of various kinds,” or “a woman’s way” (referring to menstruation). Nor do we find science or nature (reality) in ancient Hindu texts, or Egyptian, etc. Human beings used reason as in mathematics, observation, historical writing, but it was among Greek thinkers that reason “turned on itself,” became “self-conscious” in Hegel’s term, and was discovered as the presence of the eternal wisdom (divine) in human being (This great leap is clearly seen in Parmenides, Heracleitos, and later in Socrates-Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus [AD 204-270]). I find the discovery of reason to be one of the truly most fascinating processes in human history. Another unsurpassed revolution in human history is what happened in Moses and the prophets of Israel: the discovery of the presence of the I AM in and to human being, as in the story of YHWH encountering Moses out of the burning bush (and the bush was not consumed by fire, hence a non-natural phenomenon). Is it not amazing how the ancient Israelites, then Jews, then early Christians, did not interest themselves in “natural processes,” or “nature,” or realty as such—and did not discover reason—but were so pre-occupied with the in-breaking of the divine as Spirit, not as intellect? That is both their strength and weakness, and it took centuries to work out the balance of insights, to give scope to both the divine in-breaking as pneuma (Spirit) and the divine presence as intellect, reason. The Greek philosophers had it both ways, because the divine broke in as “reason” (nous), but was also understood to present itself as non-rational pneumatic activity, as in the Greek prophets, in the Delphic Oracle, in the Orphic cults and rites. That the ancient Greeks were well familiar with prophesy, and sudden inspiration from the gods, is clearly displayed in some of the Greek tragedies (such as Oedipus Rex), and in Plato, who even praises Eros as “divine madness.” But the seminal discovery of ancient Greece was in the gradual discovery of nous, of reason: that human being is essentially the “being having nous” (Aristotle; translated into Latin as the animal rationale).
No wonder, then, that philosophers turned their attention to history as the “realm of reason” (Hegel’s phrase), as the locus of the divine-human encounter (Plato, Aristotle, and some philosophers in our time). Patterns begin to appear to the wondering mind; and the search for wisdom continues as a fundamental human quest.
—Wm. Paul McKane
22 November 2019
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