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
How do you seek God? Or, do you seek God? Are you content that you have attained a full and satisfactory understanding of who or what God might be? Has your journey come to its end? Is there nothing that you sense awaits you beyond your present understanding and degree of happiness? Again, are you seeking God? If so, how do you seek?
Here I shall give a brief summary statement of ways in which I seek God. Knowing me to the extent that I do, I will overlook some significant ways in which I seek and respond to the divine presence.
The ways I seek are many, a truth that makes me uneasy with static ways of seeking-responding, such as living in a monastery. For there, monks are engaged regularly and faithfully in chanting or reciting the divine office, celebrating the Eucharist together daily, each one having some manual or clerical work to do for the good of the community, many have positions teaching or working outside of the monastery, and so on. In short, there are good reasons why, although I am a Benedictine monk in solemn vows, I cannot live in peace within the structures of Benedictine monasticism. Each one of us has unique ways of living out our faith, of loving God and of neighbor, and of trying to respond more faithfully to what we call “God” in the search for truth, for happiness, for wholeness. I am genuinely thankful for the various ways of seeking God that have developed and evolved in my life. At the same time, I wish to be true to myself by exploring the paths that have developed, and not rejecting some ways out of hand, or limiting myself to one or two of these ways. Is it possible that I could live in a vowed community and be reasonably happy? Perhaps so, but at present, this is not a risk that either my Benedictine community nor I am willing to take. Returning to the structures of monastic life could arouse in me considerable anxiety, a problem that made living in our monastery so difficult for me, and hence for others who had to live with me. “This above all, unto thine self be true.” I felt imprisoned in such a static, structured life, and at this time I cannot entertain doing that to myself.
How do I seek God now, and what ways may have weakened over the years? I rarely now seek God through praying the divine office. After years of trying to pray the liturgy of the hours while living outside the monastery (as a Navy chaplain, then as a parish priest), I found that it did not seem to work for me. Recitation of the divine office seems well suited to communal life, and not to individual spirituality—despite being “required” of clerics in the Catholic Church living and praying on their own. On the other hand, what has developed in my practice of structured prayer often has included the psalms of the Hebrew Bible as well as Scriptural readings, but not in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours (the divine office). Rather, years ago I found in me a strong preference for reading / praying the Psalms through in order, in different translations, and occasionally with recourse to the Hebrew (which I can barely read, but can discover key language symbols), or even by studying the Greek text of the Septuagint. Rarely have I read the Psalms in Jerome’s Latin. More often I have read / prayed some psalms in German. Far more often, I have employed the Jewish translation of their own Scriptures (in the Tanakh), a translation that I have found fresh and meaningful. Otherwise, I often study either the Revised Standard translation (with the King James underlying it), or the Grail Psalter, from which we sang for years at St. Anselm’s Abbey; apparently, our community has employed at least one other translation since I departed in 1991 to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy. Since retiring from active ministry in 2018, I have not had as frequent recourse to the Psalms as I did for years, but it may well be time to return to reading / praying them through in the order in which they were placed in the Hebrew Bible. This study should make a good Lenten practice for me this year. The psalms are poems, and I often have preferred to read thoughtfully a wider-range of poetry than just what is found in the Hebrew bible (the “Old Testament,” as Christians style it)
For years I put considerable effort and time into learning to sit quiet and still in the Presence of God. Especially influential on me was the way taught in the Cloud of Unknowing. I supplemented this method of patient love with studying and practicing Zazen (sitting meditation) as developed in the Buddhist tradition. Presently I go through periods of daily practice, and then slough off for a while, although I still feel drawn to return to the regular practice of daily “sitting,” as I prefer to call it. Seeking to attune oneself to the unseen, unfelt divine Presence is, I believe, one of the two foundational spiritual exercises of my life. The other is seeking God through charity—self-giving love—as I sought to do while serving in active priestly ministry, and now do more through writing than in any other way. In short, two of my most important and recurring modes of praying are sitting with the LORD in silence, and in active deeds of lovingkindness, in which one seeks to help form Christ in oneself and in others to whom one is “sent.”
To these two foundational modes of seeking God I should add one more, to which I have had frequent recourse since about the age of twenty: a close study of sacred texts. These texts have most often been from the Bible of Christianity (the “Old and New Testaments”), but since my high school years, I have not been adverse, by any means, to employing other sacred writings in order to think about, to meditate on, the reality of God and His ways in and among human beings. Often I read passages from the New Testament (especially from the Letters of the Apostle Paul and from the canonical Gospels) both in the original Greek text and in a good English translation, sometimes with notes, more often just by studying the Greek. My sense of communion with the writer of the sacred text has often been strong; if it were not, I doubt that I would return to these texts again and again. Now the particular author of the text—the Apostle Paul, the evangelists John and Luke, for examples—one seeks to commune with the Resurrected Christ and with the unknown God beyond all “revelation.” For example, when the Apostle Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2), these words are intensely and personally real to me. They express past and present experiences, and point the way to live Christ more faithfully: dying to self. Other sacred texts have come from a wide range of traditions—Lao-Tse, the Buddhist movements, ancient Hindu texts (for years the Bhagavad Gita, but increasingly the Upanishads), and of course writings by Christian spiritual masters—which are not called “sacred texts” in the Catholic tradition, but which often have the same effects in one’s soul as studying Scripture closely: a sense of union with God. (Note: this sense is never perfect, never complete, but at best a movement into divine presence.)
There are two other ways of seeking God that are extremely important in my life, and have been since at least since age twenty or so: studying philosophical texts (or other intellectually solid writings), and through the exercise of writing. For me to be happy and in peace, I must study; and long have I known that writing is a part of studying, because it focuses my mind and helps me to clarify my thinking. Furthermore, I have often shared the fruits of studying through teaching. Now that I am retired, with only one adult faith class meeting weekly, I have more time to write, and hope that something written will be of value to someone else’s spiritual journey. To what philosophical (or foundational texts) am I most drawn? Again, my present continues my life over the past five decades or so, and I find myself studying the minds that have so influenced me (not necessarily in this order): the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers; Plato; Aristotle; Plotinus; St. Augustine; St. Anselm; St. Thomas Aquinas; Shakespeare; Hegel; Nietzsche; Eric Voegelin. There are numerous others who at times have had a vast impact on my thinking. I also cherish the study of Greek tragedy and of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (the greatest poet and dramatist in our language). At times I read poetry, in part for its relative brevity compared to other forms of literature, but I am not averse to reading stories as well.
Other than the New Testament spiritualists and Plato, the German-Austrian-American scholar-philosopher Eric Voegelin has had the most influence on my mental development over the years. The Platonic dialogue that has most formed my life is the Republic (Politeia). The French thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (not a noble character by any means), said that the Republic is the greatest work on education ever written. I think that studying the Republic closely is the probably the greatest text for spiritual-intellectual education. To study the Republic is to undergo with the characters in the dialogue (notably Socrates) the ascent of the soul from the cave of a cultural and personal wasteland into the bright light of the God that is beyond all understanding. Of all the individual texts I have ever read, I would place only the Gospel of John in the same category as the Republic for spiritual formation, and the Republic is more of an intellectual formation as well. Studying Plato closely teaches one to question, to think, to gain insights into reality. In my opinion, there is no single writer in documented history to compare with the achievements of Plato. I feel drawn to study the two main dialogues on love again soon: the Phaedrus and the Symposium; these are the most profound and moving texts I know written on love.
It remains to mention other ways that I seek God, but first I should clarify the expression, “seek God.” In seeking God, one is primarily responding to the divine pulling or drawing one to seek. One is not searching in a meaningless void; on the contrary, before one calls, God as it work in the soul. A human being seeks the One already prevent and active in one’s psyche and in the world of which one is a part with body, mind, spirit. Hence, one should think of the two activities together: response and seeking. The search for God is not done in a Nietzschean void (a product of his imagination after rejecting God), but in a reality that is, in the words of ancient writers, “full of gods” or God. The divine penetrates reality, and all that exists in any way does so only by participating in the underlying “ground of being,” which we traditionally call “God.” In short, the search for God is primarily a mode of responding to God. In personal language, I seek God because God moves me to seek. Christ himself says, “Seek and you shall find.” And the more one seeks, the more one finds that the LORD, ever present in and with the soul, is the one who begins the search, guides the search, and fulfills the search. “Have I been with you so long, Philip, and yet you do not know me,” Jesus asks Philip (John 14). My response: You, Christ Jesus, are indeed “the way, the truth, and the life.” And long before I ever call on you, seek you, pray to you in any way, You are here with me. In St Augustine’s moving words that we should know are all too true, “You were with me, but I was not with you.” To which I hasten to add: LORD God, let’s make the best of my remaining years on earth, that I may find You in seeking you, and love you in finding you, to paraphrase the great St. Anselm.
This account of ways I seek God is highly incomplete. I must at least mention various other activities in which I regularly engage in my response-search for God.
First, listening to music, and occasionally studying it, is enormously important in my life. For several years in the monastery, I tried to be a “good monk” and avoid listening to music (as I avoided television and entertainment). I found it depressing in my psyche, and not at all spiritually valuable, to refrain from listening to good music. As one knows who reads my writings, I regularly listen to a wide-range of composers, but return again and again to a few. Without a doubt, the one composer who is most a companion of mine in my response-search for God is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach composed music in many forms, many structures, but always with consummate compositional skills, with his powerful intellect, and with a profound faith in Jesus Christ that comes through the music—“for those who have ears to hear.” If I had only one musician to hear for the rest of my life, it would most surely be J. S. Bach. He is truly a spiritual friend of mine to the highest degree. To Bach I would add—always further down the line than the Meister Bach himself, would at least include the following (in chronological order): Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1757), Josef Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Franz Schubert (1797-1828). I should at least mention such composers such as Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak (the healthiest soul of this group), as well as more contemporary composers from various periods and countries.
How is listening attentively to good music a spiritual exercise, part of one’s response to God seeking him or her? In the case of men especially living before the effects of the Enlightenment and secularization, such as Tallis, Schütz, and J. S. Bach (there are many fine Bach composers, so we use his initials), the texts to which they set music for singing were often avowedly and unashamedly religious. With the main exception of setting the Catholic Mass to music (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert), under the intellectual-spiritual destruction of secular processes in western culture, the great musicians generally did not spend much time setting spiritual texts. There is a place for secular music—whether Wagner among serious composers, or some musicians writing for a mass audience in our lifetimes—but one should indulge in it sparingly, I believe. If one eats only French fries and potato chips, we all know the likely result. But if one attentively listens to great composers who were grounded in the divine through faith and love, one will be nourished whether the music is composed to texts or not. Many compositions by Bach are not set to words, but in listening, one may become aware of God, or experience peace of heart, or feel energized and inspired by beauty and order (through musical structure). Good music immerses the active listener in beauty and in divine order, and such an activity is refreshing and formative
I must add to this account of ways of seeking God: taking walks in nature, usually with my dogs; viewing the night sky in wonder and gratitude for existing; being with my dogs, given their good characters and friendliness; small prayers from the heart, often of thanksgiving or praise, sometimes of petition; and friendship—spending time with friends. And for me, photography, I hobby I have had for years.
On friendship I have written previously. For the present purpose, let this suffice: Several times I was sharply criticized in my monastery for wanting to have one or several close friends. As several monks told me, “We do not have a charism for friendship in this monastery,” and more generally, one not infrequently heard warnings against having “particular friendships.” As I would say, “Friendships are only particular,” meaning one actual human being loves and cares for another human being, with mutual affection and good will. There has been in monasteries, and in Catholic religious and priestly life in general, a centuries-old attack on “particular friendships.” What was encouraged was for the monk or priest to “cast yourself solely on God,” and not rely on human friendship. In my opinion, this was a non-human (or rather, anti-human) and destructive spirituality, based in part on a fear of sex in any form—probably part of the influence of Gnosticism on early Christian experience (and even to the present, in various forms). It was an unhealthy and even perverse teaching, and although now openly criticized by many, it still has its defenders among Catholic writers. Aristotle had much more common sense than one finds among such Catholic writers. As Aristotle wrote, in effect: “No one would want to live with all of the good things in life, but not have close friends.” My heart says: “You’re right on target, as usual, Aristotle!” The attempt to live without close friends causes spiritual isolation, depression, morbidity, lack of energy, a life of self-absorption, and so on. And there was no lack of such lives in our monastery. Life without good friendships is not worth living. And as I had to insist recently, when pushed by my superiors to become a hermit: I am not in any way suited to be a hermit. I need good human companionship in this world.
In my case, not only my life in the monastery, but my demanding duties in active priestly ministry often cost me the opportunity to build good friendships. Not only was the work load demanding, but often I was moved around by bishops so frequently that friendships being built were quickly damaged or ended. That was indeed harmful to me, and I can only thank God that in my few remaining years I can “put down roots” and build some good friendships, although as Aristotle also explains, the elderly do not make friends easily. Nor do those of us who are “single,” living in locations in which nearly everyone is married, or at least has a family (as in my small-town area of Montana). Friendships for those like myself are difficult to build, but essential for happiness. I have no doubt that God wills our happiness, and that to be happy one must have true, good, and long-term friendships. A very challenging task for me.
In my present understanding, and from the perspective of one’s spiritual life: A friend is one with whom one can truly be himself, herself; and a friend is someone in whom you find the presence of God for you. A friend presents God to a friend; and when this presenting of God to one another is mutual, and done willingly, there is spiritual and true friendship. This simple statement should suffice for the present. I add only this: given my view of a friend presenting God, one should immediately understand why I found the monastic and Catholic spirituality of friendless existence as foolish and destructive of human life. In the words of Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone.” If one does not have a good and suitable spouse, one must have a true friend or two so as not to be isolated and alone, forced into an abyss of isolation and loneliness.
In all of my years of serving as a parish priest (1991-2018), I never made a single close friend among Catholic clergy; I made a few superficial friends, but genuine sharing of heart and mind was not part of the casual clerical “friendships.” The exception would be Fr. Steve in Stevensville; but I was not serving as a parish priest at the time, having been thrown out of the diocese by a heavy-handed, belligerent, and imprudent bishop. The diocesan clergy with whom I served admittedly saw me as “an outsider,” not as one of themselves—in western Montana, in Iowa, in South Dakota, and in eastern Montana. Had it not been for some good friendships with parishioners, I never could have endured the isolation of serving as a parish priest. Thank God I am now free of such church structures. It would be detrimental to my spiritual and mental health to return to a monastery, or to serve again in parishes, an issue that may deserve closer examination with coming months. I seek God by being free of Catholic structures (religious life, diocesan priesthood). Diocesan priests usually have their own families and fellow diocesan priests for friendship and support. Consider this: From many years of service, I do not even receive $1 a month for living expenses, so much was I appreciated by the institutional church. For turning in a priest for grand theft—embezzlement—the priest personnel board, I was told, unanimously voted to give me no benefits. In short, from my experience, diocesan clergy do not extend the hand of friendship to “outsiders,”—or to those with whom they disagree on various religious matters: not in Iowa, in South Dakota, nor in Montana. I concur with what one priest serving outside of his diocese said to me years ago: “It’s been a hell of a ride.” There is a large dose of a denial of reality in Catholic religious life (especially among men religious) and in the Catholic hierarchy. Again, this problem needs fuller treatment elsewhere. In sum, I note: I seek God in part by staying away from living within the structures of the Catholic Church in particular, but away from organized “religion” in general. “Know thyself.”
How do I seek God? How do I respond to God? I remain a Benedictine monk living outside of what felt to me like a mental-spiritual prison; and I remain a Catholic priest, grateful to have virtually nothing to do with diocesan clergy. I am not outside the Church, as I still count myself as a Christian in communion with other Catholic Christians. Nor do I seek isolation from them. I especially need the fellowship of friends in Christ—something that takes years to establish. This reality has been difficult to live because of the frequency of moves in my life. Just since leaving the monastery to serve as a priest on active duty (Navy and dioceses), I have lived in some 15-20 “permanent residences,” with all but one of these moves caused by the decisions of local bishops or (for several years) Navy chaplains. These frequent upheavals have cost me personally and spiritually. I feel a real need to put down roots now; still I find it very difficult to make good friends as a single man living among married folks in a small community. Hence, most of my search for God must take place alone and in a fairly painful degree of isolation from human community. I must endure this isolation as well as I can—a burden lightened, but not removed, by faith in God. I was not temperamentally designed for this kind of isolation, nor are many human beings.
In good conscience I wish to add this opinion: I would not recommend monastic life or that of a diocesan priest to anyone who intends to live a noble and balanced life. These ways of life encourage immaturity, irresponsibility, sexually “acting out,” theft, deceit, serious mental problems, and hypocrisy hidden by clerical garb and titles of respect. Or so it seems to me after some forty years of observation. Few are the men who can bear well these “vocations.” Again quoting Aristotle, “Outside of the polis (human community), man is either a beast or a god.” A good marriage is the foundation of good human community, and of personal happiness.
LORD God Almighty, You are the Beginning and the End, that from which all comes forth, and that to which all returns. God of all creation, God of every creature, you alone are all-beautiful, all-good, all-wise. To You I offer all that I am, all that I have. Guide me home by your life-renewing Spirit.
LORD Jesus, I need your friendship. I feel isolated and alone in SW Montana, a beautiful area, but one where I am not making friends. Truly, LORD, you alone are my home. Nothing else works well for me—not even friendship, which has proved ephemeral, or remote in space-time. Give me peace, LORD, in which to see the truth, and how to live today. I have been isolated and lonely since retiring from active ministry. A retired priest loses his community and way of life. LORD, have mercy on a human being in need.
Lord, what can we do? Can you befriend me in a way that really helps psychologically? Reach into my empty heart, as only you can do. Keep me still. Help me surrender now to your loving presence. Please Jesus, bridge the gap I feel that it is so wide, but for you—it is nothing, as you are present as God.
—Wm. P. McKane
25 January 2020 The Conversion of the Apostle Paul
Note: In the following section, I shall attempt a response-search for God. It will be limited in length and scope
As I begin, LORD, I call upon the beginning of all that exists. You are far too vast, too deep for my little mind to comprehend. What I ask is more modest: not to understand you, and surely not to comprehend you, but for you to allow some light of your intellect to radiate into my mind. Without your divine assistance, there is no way I would attempt to seek you out. Unless you are already within me—albeit in ways unknown or not clearly understood now—how could I possibly seek you? On the contrary, you are radically present as you revealed to Moses at the bush: ehyeh asher ehyeh—I AM WHO AM. I know that I “cannot see your face,” for you have no body, and cannot be seen by bodily organs. My intellect and love must detect your presence, as you are sheer intellect and love, at once and together, if I understand St. Thomas.
I call on you out of my depths, out of what feels like an empty heart. Although not truly alone I often feel lonely in the world, an experience within my soul since early childhood. Can you, LORD, ease the pain, can you enter into the abyss of my heart? If you cannot do so, who could? Or does this abyss belong to our common human nature, and last until death? I have learned that trying to have close friendships ease the pain of isolation in the soul is like putting a bandaid over the Grand Canyon. Our human loves are far too small for the abyss in each of our hearts—a seemingly infinite void at the center of our being—which drives us to you alone, it seems. Can you descend into this void, this abyss? Or is it perhaps wrong to ask you descend into the hell of one’s heart? Or are you already here, and I’m not acknowledging your presence? If I trust that you are present in this wasteland within my soul, will it ease the psychic pain? Surely you are here, for you penetrate and fill all things. I do not feel you, or sense your goodness. But I do not have to keep staring into the abyss, either!
I have not done well, LORD, on loving those you have given me to love. I am bothered by my shortcomings. My loves, our friendships, have fallen far short of you. You overcome our human weaknesses and failures, for you are the supreme Good. Help us to cooperate with your grace that liberates from selfishness.
How much easier and more joyful it was to write about you in nature, in the planet Venus, in the kindness of a close friend I use to have. How difficult to write to you, about you, out of such a sense of desolation, out of the depths of my inner emptiness. There may be a reason for this, and I need to discover it. Aristotle says that friendship for another is grounded on friendship with ourselves; what in me, other than you, Lord God, is worth befriending? You are what is good, and true, and beautiful in me. The rest is so wounded, so pus-infected, that it shrinks before your light. If it were not for you in me, LORD God, I may well have ended my life decades ago, or been in a mental hospital, or been forced to live on mind-altering drugs. The mental anguish in myself by myself has been too great to carry gracefully; or I carry this emptiness and pain only by the help of your grace—your free and loving presence. You truly do lighten one’s burdens, as we call on you. You are my sanity!
Dear LORD, I ask you to stir up the gifts of your Spirit in me, and above all faith, hope, and charity. Faith, that I may utterly trust in your loving and merciful Presence in me. Hope, that I will in your time (presumably beyond death) attain to full union with you in love. And charity or love, that I may truly love all whom you’ve given me to love by letting you love them through me. And love, too, that I will seek you unendingly, regardless of the cost, and attain that most desired oneness.
You are present; you are Presence itself. I would not be spending time sitting here seeking you in prayer if you were not with me already, and moving me to search out your abode. No one can call on you, or turn to you, unless you are at work in them. It would be impossible to do so. Lord, I know not to look off far, nor to look at abysmal myself, but to be attentive to your free movements in the Spirit. You move by not moving, you stir us up without stirring yourself. You baffle me. Why it is, LORD, that I see so much beauty in your world, but do not appreciate you as Beauty Itself? Why do I see so much goodness, but not acknowledge the source of all that is good? Why do I love truth, and yet often not realize that you are eternal truth itself? “O slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken.”
Lord my God, Christ himself, move me to ask the right questions. I know which question immediately comes to mind, the great question of my life: Who are you, LORD? What are you? I love these questions, because they focus my attention on you alone, you in yourself. And I sense that I know, to an extent before I ask, or why would I bother asking? Surely I trust that you are supremely good, or why would I be curled up with you now as I think, write, pray? Who are you, that you should come to me? How merciful of you to stir up this little creature. How merciful for you to be patient with me despite my selfishness. (And Lord, tears begin to come, as you know, when I call to mind someone whom I have hurt by my selfishness, by wanting more than that one can or wishes to give. I am truly sorry, LORD, and I ask you to help me crucify my desires and needs, and let you love him through me.) And when I speak with you, LORD, I believe that all whom you have given me to love are in some ways with me, whether they are alive on earth, or died, and now abide solely in you. What I do, I do for all whom you have given me to love, as well as for myself. We really are in this together, and not as alone as I often imagine.
You console me now, and encourage me, through Bach’s Great G-minor Fugue, which I hear playing, performed by Karl Richter. (Ah, these talented Germans!) It does not ruin my prayer to listen, but lifts my spirits. Such a man of God was Bach, so trusting in you, our Lord Jesus. And Lord, you know what I’ve told you: Bach’s Jesus is my Jesus, too. Our conception of you seems to be profoundly similar: real, intense, personal, joyful. You are intensely real to both Bach and me. Of course he’s in my heart and mind forever, because the divine Bach, the Brook of God, is forever in you. How many souls he has led to you, strengthened in you, converted to you. No wonder Bach has been called “the fifth evangelist,” because of his praise for you, Lord Jesus Christ, and for his most generous service of your people. All praise indeed to you for giving such gifts to men, and giving them the energy, drive, and intellect to use these gifts so astonishingly well to your glory! Thank you for my dear friend, Bach, Lord. Herr Bach, who worked harder than them all, and used your wonderful gifts to bring us to God. What a model of true Christian life you are, Johann Sebastian Bach!
A significant break-through for me
LORD, I will not seek you out in the abyss of my heart. This is a break-through for me, LORD, and I credit you with showing me. As you said through the anonymous prophet we call “Second Isaiah,” “I did not say, seek me out in an empty waste” (Is 45:19). And what an empty waste is my heart, or at least a large part of it, without seen boundaries. According to the priests who wrote the great Creation poem of Genesis 1, before God said, “Let there be light!,” the world was “tohu wabohu,” waste and void—empty, meaningless, a realm of confusion. So is the abyss in the heart, and although I shall acknowledge it, no longer do I think it prudent to seek God in such a wasteland. It will survive until death, and then “death will be no more,” and “God will be all in all”—and that includes taking over the Big Wasteland within. I will seek God in whatever has been formed and structured by God, the God of creation. As for the abyss in the human heart, let it be what it is: an empty waste. Again, to remind my all-too-empty-head, “I did not say, seek me out in an empty waste.” OK, LORD, let’s get to work! And I can go back to marveling at your beauty revealed in the planet Venus-Aphrodite, goddess in the night sky, goddess of love and beauty. This mode of searching for you, adoring your presence, brings me joy and energy; the descent into the abyss within my heart makes me depressed and sorrowful. Therefore, look up, little man, and be in awe at the works of your Creator!
Reflection: If I understood an important point Eric Voegelin makes in his final volume, In Search of Order, the divine Presence is known only through structures in reality, through what is formed (and not sheer waste). Voegelin reflected much on knowing you, LORD, through structures in the mind, in consciousness, and he sought to explore these structures common to us all: intellect, reasoning power, anamnesis (recollection), intentionality and luminosity of consciousness. This is probably all beyond me, and I prefer to work with what is familiar to me—or to what I can discover through diligent and focused study; but that awaits. I’m more eager to read again Plato’s two great dialogues on Love (éros): the Symposium and the Phaedrus.
In what structures in consciousness is God present to me now? Where are you LORD? In memory, for one. I recall the reality of God by remembering. In reason or intellect, and intentionality, as I direct my thoughts towards the divine Present. Surely you are helping me understand now, LORD, as I realize not to seek for you in the abyss within the soul, but in your creative activities all around and within You are not directly present in feelings, although my feelings can respond as I sense your presence by faith. And indeed, feelings do respond, as I have felt intensely during some experiences of your presence: peace and unspeakable joy. You are present right now as I hear Bach’s chorale, “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,” which is so highly structured, and hence an imitation of your creation. (Every real work of art is an imitation of Creation, a little world (cosmion) of its own, as I realized years ago.) And are you not known in our genuine questions, provoked by the Spirit?
One final request, LORD. You have given me some human beings to love. I ask that I would keep my self out of the way, and let you love them through me. By myself I get too attached, too desirous. I get so entranced by beauty, superficial fellow that I am! Letting you love them will through my words and actions will offer them a much purer stream of love than my ego could ever do. Amen.
To you alone, LORD,
I give all I have and am;
With you alone, LORD,
I shall arise to seek you
More diligently. Amen.
Hear Herr Bach! The melody of the chorale is now very widely known: “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring.”
Jesus bleibet meine Freude, Jesus remains my joy,
Meines Herzens Trost und Saft, My heart’s comfort and sap;
Jesus wehret allem Leide, Jesus guards from all suffering,
Er ist meines Lebens Kraft, He is my Life’s strength,
Meiner Augen Lust und Sonne, My eyes’ delight and sun,
Meiner Seele Schatz und Wonne; My soul’s treasure and bliss;
Darum laß ich Jesum nicht Therefore I will not let Jesus
Aus dem Herzen und Gesicht. Out of my heart and sight.
—Wm. P. McKane
25 January 2020
I do not intend to try to explore what I’ve termed “the abyss within me,” or “the void,” in order to search for God there. Not engaging in such activity was the insight that dawned while writing the prayer-meditation of section #8 above. The best one can do is not deny the reality in oneself of this void, but not wander into it, either. For years I thought that I had to descend into the void, at least at times, to search for God; the void attracted my attention. Then I recently read in Voegelin the assertion that the divine Presence is known only through structures—an insight which I shall search out again, and more fully integrate for spiritual growth. Hence, I do not intend to imaginatively place my consciousness within the void, then seek for God there. What I write in this section, rather, is to ask a question: What is this void or abyss that I and others have long felt, and that one occasionally hears mentioned?
An acquaintance in Montana told me that on a spiritual retreat recently, someone (perhaps a Catholic priest) mentioned that each person has “a little hole” in them, where they try to stuff things such as a new car or a lover, but in reality the hole can only be occupied by God—or words to that effect. My immediate response was: “A little hole? It’s a gaping abyss!” And I still hold with my claim. I find it superficial to assert that human beings have “a little hole” within their soul, which means, as he applied it, a little need for God—which only God can fill. On the contrary, boundaries of this “hole” are not consciously known; hence, I term it an “abyss,” or “the void.” The reason only God can be the answer to the abyss in the human heart is that only God is unbounded, infinite; and this abyss is not a finite hole, which anything really could fill, but a region which either has no boundaries, or at least borders on the infinite, on God, and so is unknown. There is no “little hole” within someone’s heart; it is unlimited.
I will put the matter differently. The void or abyss is an infinitely vast longing, that nothing in the entire cosmos (universe) can possibly fill or satisfy, but only that which is itself infinite, unbounded: and that is what traditionally is called “God.” In other words, this emptiness in the human being is so vast, so seemingly measureless, that only the Creator himself can satisfy it. That this void is indeed felt as a longing, an enormous longing for the infinite, the unbounded, virtually anyone except more superficial adults realizes. By no means is it a problem unique to me, or to you.
When two persons originally fall in love, they often assume that the other can fill that wasteland, that void, that intense longing for the infinite; but then in time, they feel disappointed with the other, once they must face reality that no human being, and no other being or being-thing can possibly fill what is essentially unfillable except by the In-finite, the non-finite. No spouse can fill one’s emptiness. No new car, vacation, experience. Fulfillment comes only from the non-being that is traditionally referred to as “God.” Indeed, how would one know that a person or thing or any given experience is not in itself “God,” except by comparison? One compares to this infinite void whatever presents itself (spouse, friend, car, whatever) as desirable. And what is discovered? The human being who is not superficial or spiritually blind compares that other, that being or experience, to the void within, and quickly realizes: this person, this experience of joy, this cruise I’ll take, or this island I’m buying cannot and will not fill the void. It is impossible for a finite being-thing to fill the vastness to which the human being is open, or on which our conscious mind and feelings border. And yet, most human beings live trying to find that “someone” or “something” to fill the void. It cannot work—any more than a bucket full of water could fill an empty ocean, or air released from a balloon could fill the vast starry heavens of space. In a sense, it is comical to think that many live trying to stuff some finite being-thing into this void; but it is also tragic, because it cannot turn out well, it cannot produce happiness or peace. Nothing can or will satisfy this infinite human longing.
This problem of things or experiences to fill the infinite abyss in the heart characterizes humanity, and certainly has been visible in the American culture with our obsessions with power, success, wealth, getting “stuff,” having “experiences,” and the like. As a people in history, Americans are spiritually immature, and our entire subset of western civilization can be seen as an attempt to fill the wasteland within with things, wealth, affairs, entertainment, drugs, and so on. Let’s be honest: Americans do not like to grow up, but always want to find that “something” or “someone” to satisfy our humanly infinite longings. And it does not work, cannot work. Accepting reality is a major step forward to spiritual growth.
God alone can satisfy—but not within the limitations of present existence—the human heart, which opens up to the infinite, which is conscious of the abyss. I repeat this point because it is so important to keep in mind: Not even God can or will satisfy the human being’s infinite longings in present existence. Apparently, it is contrary to nature or reality, impossible, and would end the human search for fulfillment beyond death. What one calls “God” cannot fill this void because God as experienced is always a limited experience for the human being. No single divine event completes the human being, but rather leaves him or her wanting more. Consider, as an example, the Apostle Paul’s extraordinary vision of the Resurrected Christ. Paul did not write, “Now I am fulfilled, now I am satisfied; I have seen the LORD!” On the contrary, the Apostle writes: “I have not attained; rather, forgetting what lies behind, I press on to what lies ahead…” (Phil 3). He knew well that he had just tasted the Infinite God, and had by no means a final, ultimate fulfillment.
I’ve known a number of rather naive folks (spiritually immature) who have experienced love, or God’s peace, or a vision, and thought that “that is it,” that now they are fulfilled. “Hey! I’ve arrived!” I say: “Not so fast, sweet-heart. You are misinterpreting reality. It does not work that way.” And it does not work that way, because the abyss is too vast even for the best gifts that God can present in this life. If a single experience or “faith in God” could satisfy the heart, who would ever welcome death when it comes? Death would be seen only as destruction, and not as a means for fulfilling the infinite longing of the heart for completion. Death is the door into infinite happiness, infinite completion—death and only death. In other words, nothing, no one, can complete a human being in present existence—not even God’s presence in and to a person. There is no ultimate satisfaction of the human heart’s longing in present existence. And that reality feeds the longing and hope for death as release from finitude, and emergence into that which alone can complete or satisfy; and that is what is called “God,” or “union with the One,” and so on.
Hence, one of the salient characteristics of present existence—of human life in this world—is its essential incompleteness. Based on the proceeding analysis, we can say that human existence is essentially incomplete and unfulfillable in life, and that this truth opens one up to the possibility that there is fulfillment, but only through / beyond death. Death is the only hope that one can be completely fulfilled. That union with God for which peoples of various religious faiths are taught to long is itself possible only beyond physical death, beyond extinction of all of one’s present existence. This suggests that if a human being wishes or desires to keep his or her own finite soul beyond death, then he or she would remain essentially incomplete, unfulfilled. As long as one clings to finitude, to oneself or another, in any way, completion does not occur. To be fulfilled, the human being must surrender everything it has and is into the infinite abyss of divine love. Then and only then is fulfillment found.
“The greater the death, the greater the life.” Only complete death to all that one is, has, and knows can allow “God to be all in all.” On this we shall ponder in another meditation.
Void of nothingness within,
Most profound longing
That the human heart can know,
Desire for the infinite--
Nothing in this life:
No divine experience,
No peace and joy forever,
No perfect spouse or lover--
Nothing can fulfill
The abyss that’s yours within;
No, not even God
Within present existence
Can fully satisfy you.
Only through full death,
Complete extinction of all
You are, all you have,
Removal of all you love,
End of your own existence
Can fulfillment come:
Finite yields to infinite,
God is all in all,
Nothing limited remains,
Creator and creature oned.
—26 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
Click on the above Poetry tab to read a variety of styles of poetry.