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
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