In meditation, one seeks to suspend one’s beliefs, feelings, judgments, attachments—everything that the meditator holds dear. The man or woman who truly meditates in openness to the Unknown God enters into a dark abyss of unknowing. In this condition, what one has known, thought, loved, may indeed become a hindrance to the descent into the divine spring.
Over the years, I have had to deal with a few Muslims, with their unquestioning attachment to “holy Koran.” And I have had to deal with many Evangelical Christians with this unquestioning attachment to “the holy Bible.” During the past thirty years of functioning as a priest-monk in the Catholic church, I have had to deal often with “devout Catholics” who hold an unthinking, unquestioned, unexamined attachment to the Catholic Church—to “holy Mother Church.”
As Plato tells us in the Apology, Socrates was accused by Athenian officials and brought to trial on three false charges: “denying the gods of the city,” “introducing a foreign divinity,” and “corrupting the youth of Athens.” He is found guilty of all charges, and his prosecutors ask for the death sentence. By a close vote, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. And so he died. Before he walked out of the court room of some 500 jurors, Socrates exhorted them in many moving words, often summed up in one of his memorable phrases: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And then his final words before leaving the court: “Now it is time to go—I to die, and you to live. Which of us has the better fate is unknown to anyone, except to God.” In condemning Socrates to death, democratic Athens has condemned itself to an unjust existence.
The problem of not examining ourselves, our beliefs, our lives, is endemic to all of us, and to some more than others. Among church-attending Catholics, one can find a phenomenon that is difficult to understand, in part because it is unseen and largely unknown even to those with the problem. On close examination, one finds in many Catholics now and over the centuries an unquestioned, nearly unbreakable attachment to “the holy Catholic Church.” It shows up recently as some of the hierarchy’s evil deeds and cover-ups have come to light, and yet “the faithful” remain blindly loyal to the institutional church. Why?
Theologically, it is as if the Church stands in the place of God or of Christ. Hence, despite seeing real problems, they pretend that the Church is really holy anyway—even while clergy and lay persons commit heinous crimes and sins. Psychologically, the attachment of many Catholics to the Church is foundational in their lives. The Church is for them an extension of their own egos, just as the Mother was first experienced as an extension of the infant himself or herself—as part of oneself. As these children grew older, most of them learned to differentiate themselves from their birth mother, and became relatively independent and functioning adults. But many Catholics psychologically have failed to undergo a due and healthy separation from the institutional Church. In some ways, the Church became a new mother, a Big Mother, often equated with Mary, then interpreted as “next to God” or even as “divine.” No few Catholics in recent centuries have treated the Church as though it were “the Kingdom of God on earth”—the true and perfect embodiment of God Himself. Of course it did not help that many clergy furthered this idolatrous belief, priests even declaring themselves to be an “alter Christus,” another Christ. Who is the real Christ?
What we have in these many Catholics is not only an undue psychological attachment, but in effect, a form of idolatry—just as so many Evangelicals in effect worship the Bible as unquestionably true and holy and good. In shortest scope, neither the Church nor the Bible is perfect nor a completely true or good embodiment of God. To tell Evangelicals and Catholics this simple truth would incite many of these folks to declare one a “heretic,” or “an unbeliever,” or in terms used by Muslims today, “an infidel.” In truth, “humankind cannot bear very much reality” (Eliot, “The Four Quartets”). In reality, all of the churches are highly imperfect human societies. The Catholic Church is not fully holy—indeed, far from it—and the church is surely not “divine.” Scholars even provide persuasive reasons to assert that the Church was not founded by Christ, but developed by his disciples soon after his death-Resurrection. Indeed, we should all do well to consider words of St. Thomas Aquinas: that the body of Christ is not a particular institution, but all of humanity in history. Christ is far too big for an institution. We human beings are the body of Christ—imperfectly so, often unjustly so, but together we, and not a given denomination or political society, is the “body of Christ” in time.
Now for a practical question—a “pastoral question”: How is one to relate to Catholics who cling devoutly to the institutional Church, regardless of what its leaders and representatives do? As a pastor, teacher, or parent, how should one deal with Catholics who refuse to grow up spiritually and “let go of the sides of the pool”—let go of their ego-attachment to Mother Church? How can one help remove blindfolds from the willfully self-blinded? This attachment to “the Church” is in reality a very strong attachment to one’s own ego. How difficult it is to let go of self in all of its forms.
This problem still faces me, even in retirement. I still deal with Catholics in pastoral roles from time to time, and more often then not, while trying to guide them towards the Unknown God, there remains a huge obstacle in their hearts and minds: it is their ego-attachment to “the Church,” and to the “God” and “Christ” of the Church’s creeds, and sometimes to “Church teaching,” “the priest,” “the bishop,” “the Pope,” “the Bible.” In all of these cases, I have to challenge these undue attachments. And the inevitable result, not unexpectedly, is intense psychological resistance. Adult Catholics do not like to be told that they need to grow up spiritually and think for themselves; they would rather bury their minds in “the Church,” or in their particular priest, and so on. We are dealing with extreme ego-attachment, or what now is often called “an addiction.” Many Catholics are addicted to the illusion of the perfect, divine Church, that psychotically stands to them as their mother did in infancy. Spiritually, these Catholics resist growing up.
What is one to do? Keep silent? Not challenge these “true believers” whose attachment may well be hindering their way to God? If one challenges them, as I have experienced on no few occasions, some become agitated, belligerent, highly critical, declare me “unCatholic” or worse, begin to carp and mock me. They grow impatient, restless, irritable, and often nasty as I move them to see that the Church is not God, not perfect, not nearly so holy as they dream. Many of these Catholics would rather silence the challenging voice than take up the hard task of examining themselves, and letting go of illusions and undue attachments. They must come to see that the Catholic Church is a highly imperfect human institution that has often masqueraded as “the perfect society,” as “the Kingdom of God on earth,” as “holy and divine.” These Catholics must give up their illusory beliefs and their iron-clad attachment to “the Church” in order to begin afresh the journey of their soul into God.
Presently, I am not sure that most Catholics are willing to die to themselves, to renounce their illusions, to let go of “the Church,” and to seek the living God in humility, with a strong awareness of their own ignorance and lack of genuine faith as childlike trust in God alone. An essential step forward can be made when these Catholics cease muttering busy prayers, and sit silent and still in meditation.
—Wm. P. McKane
07 June 2020
God beyond all understanding, origin and end of all that exists, aid me now in my search in You, and for You. Guide me home. Amen.
Problem: It occurs to me that I do not have the same sense of Christ’s presence in me, to me, as I did or thought I did in years past. My quest for God has been far more focused on the movement of consciousness into the divine unknown than a reflection of God incarnate. In usual terms, my way has been more apophatic than cataphatic, although these two modes are inseparable: the way into God without images, and the way into God through images. Christ is the unsurpassable Image of the unseen God. The desire to move from the seen to the unseen, from God as revealed to God “beyond all telling” has long been at work in me. Had it not been, why would I have entered a monastery to “seek God,” the Benedictine way?
As a young man, I prayed, invited Jesus Christ into my soul, and I believe that He entered. The experiences in the early days were intense, fresh, ever-different, and truly life-changing. What has happened to these? The ways that I have experienced divine Presence-Absence have surely changed over time. At this time I will not try to recount some of these experiences for at least two reasons: I have done so before; and I do not think that writing about them is truly beneficial. God has unique ways at working on and in each person, and I do not want to give any impression that His ways with me are normative, or to be expected. What I can say is that over time, these modes of experience have changed considerably. It seems clear to me that God knows what we need, when we need it, in order to draw us into a more authentic life in Him and with Him As Cardinal Newman wrote, “God knows what He is about.” Indeed, He does. We often do not. We grope in darkness—a darkness that is or can be so deep that we often overlook divine workings in us, to us, for us, around us. How blind we often are. How blind am I? “What would you have me do for you,” Jesus asked. “LORD, that I may see again.”
I have been blind to divine workings. What we call “Christ,” or what I call Christ in my consciousness, is not gone or lost at all. God works on me as He wills, as He knows best. As an example, for several years—and perhaps still—I have been strongly drawn to the quite undeveloped Oregon coast to gaze upon the ocean, which for me is an extremely powerful, visible image of the unseen God. I utterly love the Ocean, because it overwhelms me. No one can master the Ocean. “It” (if we dare call the Ocean an “it”) draws one away from self into unknowing, into a realm far greater than anything one can know, understand, grasp. And so I have been drawn back to the Ocean time and again in my life, including in recent years.
When I was suddenly expelled from my home and priestly ministry in Kalispell, Montana, in 1995 (after working there only six months), I experienced God’s healing love through the compassion, kindness, and practical wisdom of Fr. Steve, who at the time was serving as a priest in the Bitterroot. Having felt spiritually abused by the local bishop (who acted harshly on a number of us), I needed to experience God’s love through the personal, brotherly care of an elderly priest. I was Christed through this one man at the time, because that is what I needed to undue the damage done by the uncharitable, heavy-handed bishop and some of his clergy. Again, “God knows what He is doing.” I am thankful for my experiences in Kalispell, and fully trust that the LORD who led me there never abandoned me at all. Not only did I experience Christ’s healing love through a brother priest; even more importantly, perhaps, in the long run, having been thrown out of my home in western Montana, I was led to a very important insight: I have no permanent or lasting home anywhere in this world, so being removed is secondary. Rather, my one home is in God beyond this world. As I suddenly realized, “I have no home but God,” and “God is my home forever.” That is what matters. The all-wise, all-good God brought much good to me out of human evil and foolishness (including my own): I realized that no matter where I am, God is in me, with me, for me, and “my dwelling place forever.” That insight makes a huge difference, especially as so many persons are afraid of change in their lives, afraid of being “thrown out,” or losing their family and friends, and so on. In the wise words of Fr. Steve, “When you are thrown out, just shake the dust off your feet and say, `I’ve been thrown out of better bars.’” Indeed, I have. My home is in God, and only temporarily and for a little while do I live here.
Some friends were surprised when I recently moved from Great Falls to the little town of Sheridan, in the south-western part of beautiful Montana, near Virginia City. I was a little surprised that I had the courage to return to live in the diocese from which I had been ejected by a bishop. But he is long gone, and I am retired—and not as a diocesan priest. Rather, I remain a monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, and am free from the machinations of diocesan politics which seem to me both endless and uninteresting. Men will be men, and the scramble for status and power is ever at work in human hearts; one must constantly seek to guard against seeking power, status, or wealth. These pursuits are the ways of the world, not the way of Christ. If you doubt this, examine the life and writings of St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Teresa of Avila. These giants among human beings knew well what is truly worth seeking, and what is worth letting go. God alone is truly worth seeking “with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul.”
And so I came to Sheridan, where I now live. The loss of closeness to friends and former parishioners affected me, and still does. Some of us are still in fairly frequent contact, thanks to the wonders of “modern communication,” including the cell phone and the internet. These really are very useful tools for “building community,” for “keeping in touch” with friends and loved ones, as well all know.
Still, I must deal with a problem. As a single man (and a monk), I have long noticed that I make few if any friends except through my duties as a parish priest. A priest makes his home in and with his parishioners. They become highly important to his personal, social, spiritual life If they do not invest themselves in their parishioners, what is the priest doing among them? A parish priest gives himself in love to his parishioners, as they need it for their growth in Christ. Well, once I retired, I lost that ever-present, ever-demanding way of befriending people. Most of my former parishioners were quickly out of my life. A few have kept up our bonds. As another wise and good parish priest, Fr. Lou, said to me, “Paul, once you retire, most of your parishioners will forget you. Even ones you thought were close friends. It stops when you retire.” He was right. A few friends remain, but far more disappeared from my life. In reality, I retired and was removed from their lives. And so I am virtually alone.
Hence, when I moved to Sheridan, I came without friends, and without my avenue to make friends: active priestly ministry. Fortunately, I have two former parishioner-friends in the area from my short stay in Kalispell, Steve and Carol; otherwise, I came to an area knowing virtually no one. Soon Steve and Carol and I began a form of priestly ministry by setting up and sharing in an adult faith class, in which we listen to one another and communicate our lives in Christ Over time, I may be open to doing a little pastoral work in parishes, but that remains to be seen; I resist getting swallowed up in diocesan politics in any way. To use the cliché, “Been there, done that.” My remaining time on earth is too short to waste with petty jealousies, rivalries, liturgical squabbles, doctrinal modes of existence, and so on. Thanks be to God, I am a free man: free to seek God in love and in truth. Well, I’m free to a degree; everyone has his or her baggage that weighs one down. Part of my baggage is the need for genuine friendship; it is difficult to find, and surely so for a homeless wanderer in this passing world
And so I remain a Benedictine monk, one called to “seek God” either in community, or in solitude, or in a balanced life doing both. Now is the time, it seems, for me to seek God in solitude and peace as foremost in my life. I will still have some contact with former parishioners, but above all, I must keep learning to “be alone with the Alone,” and to find my center and my joy in God, beyond knowing, in searching love. To this end, I know of several foremost activities for me:
to pray as I am able to do so;
to study—seeking God through the writings of philosophers, prophets, saints, and others;
to write to assist myself and others on the journey of the soul into God.
Finally, I am no hermit, nor was I meant to be. I need and value good friends in Christ. Love is the way by which one becomes one with God. There is no other way. My present task is to find a workable balance between seeking God alone and sharing Christ with others Getting this balance right is my foremost task now.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
14 January 2020
All of my writing, like my life, is experimental. I am ever on a journey. We all are—through space-time into God. That is the nature of life. Whether I write below is more prose or poetry, I do not know, nor shall I plan. It may be formless, as fits the subject, the problem with which my soul now wrestles: the movement into the void.
My heart is a void. I would say a “vast void,” a large emptiness, but it may be a small void, but it is empty. When everything is dark and unseen, it may appear infinite, even if very small indeed. I am a little man, not great-souled, not significant, nearly fully unknown to the dying crowds—and that is the way I want it. Fame or attention would defeat the kind of life to which I feel and am drawn. But this also is true: every human soul borders on God, is in God, and God is boundless. Hence, in reality, the soul is boundless in God. Vast indeed is the human psyche, and how mistaken are those who treat the mind or soul as if it were a bounded, limited “thing.” Truly to know any human being well, one must also know God, who is the bonded partner with a human being. More on this issue at another time.
Now I seek to enter into the void of my heart, the wasteland of my soul, if I may say so. There is no way I could survive as a hermit or in strict isolation. Why not? Because I intensely need human companionship, communion heart with heart, mind with mind in God. Although a loner in the sense of avoiding crowds, social activities, parties, committees, and other things that have no attraction to me. I am not a loner in the sense of being a man who could spend three weeks in strict solitude, and be happy doing it. When a friend recently shared some issues in his heart with me, I said, “Now I feel on cloud nine.” What did I mean? I feel communion—a most delightful communion—when friend opens up to friend.
As a child, I was on a number of occasions punished by being placed in complete isolation from any human being. No one would or could speak with me. My father apparently knew how much I loved being with people and communicating. So when he considered it right or just to punish me, he did it in two ways, usually combined: he would hit me with his hand or with a flat garden hose; and then he would isolate me in a corner, or in a car with no one speaking to me, or in the basement, or in a room by myself. On happier occasions I was isolated without being hit first, but often these two forms of punishment were combined. Forced to sit alone, and feeling rejected and shunned, I wept. Even when I stopped crying as I aged, I wept inside. Now some of these tears flow out: years of pain held in.
This isolation may or may not still affect me, but I think that it does. If someone wants to punish me or “teach me a lesson” as my father would say, he or she can do so by refusing to speak with me, for us not to listen to each other, to be together. Isolate me and I feel as though I am in hell. That is a part of the void in me, and part of the personal “baggage” I must carry, day in, day out. It is part of me.
I am embarrassingly needy of human communion. The very threat (not intended as a threat, but felt as one) that my monastic superiors would require me to take vows as a hermit wrecked havoc in my life. It scared the dickens out of me. Ask my friend, Sandra, who witnessed what I went through several years ago when superiors were planning for me to become a hermit. Or ask Fr. Lou, my one priest friend in the Diocese of Great Falls, who said to me on several occasions, “Paul, you are not a hermit.” No one who truly knows me could think that I could be happy living alone and in isolation from human beings—especially from having a few truly close friends. And if one is so needy of real friendship, why deceive oneself with the name of “hermit.” It is unlikely enough calling me “a monk.” As I was told in my monastery, “We do not have a charism for friendship here.” It was evident that I needed close friendship, and several monks let me know that, as far as they were concerned, that need or “charism” excluded me from being a genuine Benedictine monk. Note well: I do not live in the monastery to which I took solemn vows. I simply “do not fit in,” to use the words so often applied to be at St. Anselm’s. And rightly so. I do not fit into the tight boundaries and conformities of Benedictine life.
Out of the utter blackness in me, the void that is painful and ever-present, I know with everything in me that I need one or a few truly good, reliable friends in life. With close friendship, I feel that I am able to be the man God wants me to be. Without a good friend or two on life’s journey, heaven would feel to me like hell. All of the friends I made in childhood were stripped away after a few months, as I attended some eighteen schools in eleven states before graduating from high school. Where were my friends? Gone. I had my family members, with whom I was often caught up in strife and conflict. Such was my life. How, I ask, could such a wounded human soul be expected to thrive and be happy as a hermit? (Or perhaps as a monk in community, for that matter.) What were these monastic authorities thinking? “Father, forgive us, for we do not know what we do.” If someone truly wants to make me suffer greatly, then put me in strict isolation—or throw me into “a cell,” as monks call their rooms.
It is not that I cannot be at peace alone. Well, perhaps I cannot be. With the trust that I have one or two good, reliable friends, I am not lonely when alone, because by love they dwell in my heart, in consciousness. When I pray, they are with me. When I read, they are with me. Without real human friends, I would not want to exist. Life in isolation would not be worth living. I utterly disagree with Jean-Paul Sartre, the French intellectual “existenialist,” who said, “Hell is my neighbor.” For me, hell is myself in utter isolation.
One can say, “But if you really believed in God, that would be sufficient.” Perhaps for Fr. Daniel Kirk, OSB, who was a wholesome and holy man. He had the benefit of a close loving family in childhood, and was not jerked around from place to place. But not for Paul McKane, who is neither wholesome nor holy, but in many ways, full of holes. These holes, these moth holes, eat up the fabric of my soul and character. That is just the way I am, whether I or others like it or not. I cannot be what I am not. “We all have our crosses to bear,” and “I am my own cross.” That much I know, and if you know me, you know how I can be a cross to you. Forgive me, friend.
I feel the draw to move by faith alone into the void, into what I often call “the divine abyss.” But it seems clear to me that I have one precondition for making this journey: I need to carry one or two dear friends in my heart, in consciousness, trusting that I am accepted and loved for who I am, and not because of some title or role, such as “priest,” or “monk,” or “man of God.” I am simply a wounded human being seeking peace and happiness with others in God.
Is it enough that Christ loves me? I think that for a while after my conversion to Christ, yes, that sufficed—or did it? I was horribly lonely and often did not want to exist when I was an undergraduate (ages 18-21). Once I was converted to Christ (age 20, I believe), I felt an intense sense of his presence in me and with me. Still, I needed human friendship. Yes, Christ; but also, a good friend.
“A friend is someone you don’t go to bed with,” as my former fiancée, Judy, would quote from her English professor. A friend is someone who stands with and for each other, accepting one another “warts and all.” A friend as friend does not seek sexual union, but spiritual union, a “meeting of the minds,” and attunement of the hearts. Or so I believe. A self-enclosed, secretive soul cannot truly befriend another human being. Or God.
I am willing to descend into the divine abyss in prayer—“truly to seek God,” in St. Benedict’s words—if and only if I am assured that I have a friend who may drag me out of the cave if I descend too far, for too long. If for a few days, Willy Boy is totally silent, someone better check on me, because that is not my style. God will have me silently in death, and then I will speak only in silence, as does God. For now, words. If you hear nothing from me, ask, “Is that man still alive?” And so I write for you, whomsoever you are.
Now I need to take steps to enter into the divine abyss. Let’s see what happens.
Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
14 January 2020
I chose as a title for this meditation, “into the void,” referring to the movement of the human mind into that which we call “God.” Now I use the term “God” in the sense developed in St. Anselm’s superb meditation, the Proslogion, one man’s address to God in prayer. St. Anselm’s develops with mystical-intellectual skill his insight: “God is that than which nothing greater can be thought, and greater than can be thought.” That “greater than can be thought” is what I signify as “the divine abyss.” No mind except the divine Mind itself knows God as He truly is.
At this time in my life, however, I do not feel so strongly drawn to “seek God” in prayer, meditation, or descent into the divine abyss as I often have. Perhaps my thinking and attitude will change in a few weeks—who knows? At least today—and let’s take one day at a time, for that is all we have—I prefer to seek that which can console, heal, bless my wounded soul, than to journey into the unknown depths of God. As I explained in the two previous blogs in this series, I am strongly aware of having a real need for good human friendship. How I ever thought that I could survive and thrive in a monastery where “particular friendships” were discouraged and frowned upon, I do not know. And what is the Socratic watch-word, which makes eminent sense to me? “Know thyself.” Or more fully from Delphi: “Know thyself: that you are a human being and not a god.”
This human being is not now desirous of going naked into the divine abyss. I am not ready for God.As previously explained, within my consciousness there is such an intense awareness of being moth-eaten, if you will, and full of holes, that I have no interest or ability to “empty myself wholly,” and “be alone with the Alone.” Often have I praised and used Plotinus’ watchword, to be “alone with the Alone.” Yes, I see that as a desideratum, as a great good. But I am not now capable of being truly alone. In fact, at this time I challenge the notion of aloneness. How can any human being ever be truly and completely alone? Is it not a contradiction, a denial of who and what we are?
I have often heard mention by Catholics and others of “private prayer.” That phrase never appealed to me, or made sense to me. How can a human being be “wholly private”? If I go to God in prayer, all that I know and have loved in any way is with me. That is how consciousness, how human reality works. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Yes, I can “go into my room, shut the door, and pray to the Father in secret.” Of course I can utter thoughts in my heart without giving voice to them. As I write now, I am sitting alone in a house with my dogs, who are not pestering me (because I just fed them, and Labs are gluttons, after all). I am in solitude to a degree, but am I really alone? I do not know you who will read this—if indeed anyone ever will—but you, unknown, not even imagined, are with me to a degree. I am writing for myself, yes, to clarify thoughts; I am also writing for you, the unknown reader, if in any way I can assist you in your life, and in your desire for God. We are all dying soon, given the brevity of our lives; so let’s get our acts together, eh?
Who or what is with me right now, other than myself as I am writing, and you, the possible reader? Who else is with me? By faith I trust that God is present—HE WHO IS—the God of Moses and of Jesus Christ. In other words, I trust that the unseen Creator of all that exists in any way is present in me, with me, even for me. So I am not at all alone. On the divine Presence in the search—in one’s daily life—I shall write later. For there are others with me now. My dogs who share my house—Moses and Elijah—are with me, as I am surely conscious of their being in the house. Moses I see napping just fifteen feet in front of me; Elijah went off to the bedroom. I am not alone in the house, but sharing it with “POSSLQ’s. That is one of those silly bureaucratic terms I found on a census form many years ago. It means, Persons of other sex sharing living quarters.” For me it means: “Persons of other species sharing living quarters.”
Who or what else is with me now? My webmaster Sandra, because I am aware that if anyone reads these words, it will be she. And then some former parishioners, especially Betty, who may browse this website. Who else? My friend Steve (who probably does not read what I write), is heading off today to help give a 4-day retreat to men seeking a closer friendship with Christ. I promised to pray for Steve as he sings and presents a spiritual talk to the men. Others are present, more fleetingly. Several are present with me in memory from beyond death: Fr. Daniel, who was my spiritual father in the monastery (and remembering him leads me to the present Abbot, James); my dogs Zoe and Rummy who died—they all come in and out of consciousness. My parents return often to memory from “beyond the grave,” or at least from their lives in this world, having passed into or through death.
In short, I am not alone. "I” does not exist in isolation,. What one calls “I” is a part of a functioning Whole, a part of reality. “I” has no independent existence; the belief in such an existence is in truth an illusion. Anyone who thinks that he or she is or can be a fully isolated, independently existing being is deceiving themselves. I have no being except in relationship to the physical world, to its ultimate cause (thank you, Aristotle), and to all whom I have known and loved in my life. And to others I am not even mentioning—for example, the cows I observed yesterday gleaning in the stubble fields. (I thought, “How hungry they must be, getting so little to eat.”)
So I am not truly alone. What about that which I called “God” above, or “the divine Presence,” or “the divine Mind”? I use the symbols (terms) without really understanding them. Who knows what “God” actually means, who or what God might be? We simply take our guesses. But how little, how weak is our understanding, our intellects. Much of the time in our lives, we are groping in relative darkness, whether we acknowledge it and admit it or not.
What is the divine Presence? How might God be present right now?”
Before proceeding, I feel a kind of tug or itch in my mind. Someone or something needs attention, something comes weakly yet pressingly into consciousness. It is you, a friend. I need to keep suspending that awareness for now. There will be a time to attend to you, but it is not now. I chose to suspend, so let me live my resolve now. LORD, I surrender them to you—all of them, and myself as well—here and now. Be it done to all of us as You will. Takes us to yourself in your way, your time.
Yes, I can try to suspend awareness of you, but even if you died, how could I not recall you to mind, as long as I am able to recall? So please, just sit quietly over there, and let me proceed. I love you and will not forget you. I hope. If I forget you, I’ve probably lost my mind, or at least my memory. For now, however, please sit still and let me return to awareness of simple Presence. If I am able to do this at all…. Getting sleepy. I shall stand and walk about to wake up.
At this time, I am not ready or able to seek God’s Presence quietly in prayer. The loneliness, the emptiness in my soul is great enough to cause constant interior suffering. It is part of who I am as a human being.
Of all the many things I learned between 1981 and 1991 at St. Anselm’s Abbey, to which I belong in solemn vows, words read to us when I was a postulant may come most often to my mind. Abbot James read an account of a Trappist monk, who on his deathbed said mournfully, “I never knew anyone.” Consider those words, as I often do. In reality, I really know no one well (not even myself, really). How can a human being who does not know another, and have a strong sense of communion with a fellow human being, truly seek God in prayer? How can an empty heart reach out in genuine love towards God, as prayer requires? How can a human being without genuine, true communion with another being possibly commune with God? What would that be? It would be an illusion, I believe, although I could be wrong, as I so often am.
I say, on the contrary: the best and perhaps only true aid in seeking God’s friendship is to have a profound and lasting human friend. Aristotle teaches that such friendship is possible if and only if a human being befriends himself—and that, says the Philosopher, means that he loves his intellect, the divine within. Or such is my reading of Aristotle in Books VIII and IX, both on friendship, in his superb Nicomachean Ethics. What happens to those who barely know that they have an intellect, or what it might be? What do they have to befriend in themselves? Their desires? Their lusts? Their imaginations? Their “personalities”? Their bodies? What is truly lovable in a human being?
In sum, I am not ready to depart on an adventure into God, because I lack a genuine and lasting human friendship, and I have not properly befriended the divine in me—that is, the intellect, the divine within reason. So although I am not wholly alone, as explained above, my soul is a spiritual wasteland, a void, that is not truly ready or able to advance on what St. Bonaventure called “the journey of the mind [intellect] into God.” I need to examine the wasteland, the emptiness in my own soul.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
16 January 2020
The previous blog led me to introduce several themes: that the “I” or oneself is never completely alone; that I experience within myself a real emptiness, a void caused by lack of enduring friendship; that Aristotle claims that true friendship is grounded on proper love of oneself, which means loving one’s highest or noetic self, the intellect, or the soul’s participation in the divine mind. I am seeking to understand my own soul before assuming that I am truly ready to “seek God” in the monastic sense. As things stand, I consider myself neither capable nor worthy of truly seeking God. But I can also add: That is true, but one must be careful. For the divine that a human being seeks is that which is sought as a response to being sought by God. The ever-present one who is experienced as “shining in” to consciousness is understood to be the divine Mind; and this divine Mind or Intellect shines into our minds whether one is worthy or ready or not. God is God and the light of our minds, whether we acknowledge his Presence or not.
In short: A man’s search for God is fundamentally a response to the experience of being sought by God. And the God who seeks is experienced as an undefinable Presence to the soul or consciousness. This claim is not meant to be “theological” or “doctrinal,” but experiential: it is grounded on concrete experiences presumably available to every human being precisely as human beings. What is required could be called “faith and love,” but for the present, I see it as obeying the Delphic inscription so beloved by Socrates: “Know thyself.” The self that is known is not a separate “I,” but consciousness participating in the Whole of reality, from the divine First Cause or Creator down to physical matter that lies all around us. We are partners in the mystery of being, not separate “egos;” this insight informed philosophy and all spiritual writers of whom I am aware from the most texts available into the 17th century, to the French philosopher Descartes, who begins with a radically separated self or ego, and then proceeds to “prove” the existence of the world outside of consciousness, and to “prove” the “existence of God.” In a more grounded, proper sense, not only does God not “exist,” but human being does not just “exist” (stand out in space-time), but participates through consciousness, through psyche or his soul, in the whole range of being, in all of reality in which we share by “body” and “soul.” This participatory experience will be explored subsequently. For the present, I return to the experience of the void within the soul.
I concretely experience in myself a deep vast void, an interior emptiness that is largely unknown and hence unloved by anyone—including myself, and such friends as I have. We shall explore this stressful or distressful reality, but also suspend from it at times. For the emptiness within is not the entire picture, nor the most important part, although at times it surfaces in personal trials and storms, and presents itself as all-important. Even in times of tension, one should do well to recall that the human soul is not only a wasteland, a void, as taught by so much of modern thinking since at least the seventeenth century (Descartes, Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, and many others). In exploring the psyche or consciousness, one should not begin with oblivion: with forgetting the whole of which one is conscious (again, Descartes’ and modern thinking’s fundamental spiritual-philosophical mistake). Rather, the explorer must not forget, but remember what s/he has experienced throughout life. Hesiod (c 8th century BC) and Greek thinkers after him wrote of the importance of Mnemosyne, remembering, as a primary duty of the human soul. (Here I simply point out that in Greek myth, as in Hesiod, the Muses—modes of divine Presence that inspire human beings—are the offspring of Father Zeus and Mnemosyne, divine Remembering. I shall explore this fascinating insight at a later time. And I hope and trust that the Muses will inspire me to remember to do so, singing to me of the wonders of the gods in reality, if I be permitted to write mythically. (But then again, in our age of scientism and factualism, myth is often taken too literally. For examples, listen to how Christian and Muslim fundamentalists approach their myths.)
It should be helpful to bear in mind fundamental reality as experienced by everyone who refuses to forget what has been experienced. Regardless of whoever one is, however wounded or deformed by sufferings (whether inflicted by others or from one’s bad choices is not the issue) the truth of reality remains indestructibly: that which is usually called “God” is radically Present. And this “God” is radically present and available whether one likes or not, attends or not. God is present whether one lovingly responds, defiantly rebels, or blindly forgets. Divine Presence, the I AM, is the substrate, the ground, of all of reality, including human consciousness. In other words, what we call “God” is ever-present, always available, loving the unlovable, healing the wounded, lighting up the darkness of the human heart and mind. Whether you and I are present with and to God or not, the divine is present to and with us. To forget this truth is, as noted, the foremost spiritual-intellectual disease of modernity: the refusal to remember, and to apperceive, fundamental reality. It is as if a man placed his hands firmly over his eyes, and said to you, standing right in front of him: What do you mean you are there? I see nothing at all. And such is the fundamental spiritual response that is so characteristic of what is called “modernity,” from about the 1600’s to the present. The game has gotten old, and in its wake is death: death of the spirit; death in concentration camps; death in abortion clinics. We refuse to admit what everyone knows well enough: human being is by nature a partner in God.
Hence, I experience two realities simultaneously, or back-and-forth, and I understand this to be the human condition, to one extent or another: On the one hand, I am consciousness of a void within me, of being a spiritual wasteland, empty and unlovable in myself; but on the other hand, the living and all-good God is freely present in me and with me. The unlovable is loved by divine Love. It would be untrue and ungrateful to refuse to acknowledge and to accept the divine Lover. Rejecting God’s loving Presence leaves one empty in the void of emptiness—in other words, living in the hell of one’s own making, or at least of one’s own being. That is a road not worth taking.
The abyss of emptiness that I am (the “ego”); and the divine that is present in me and with me. Both and. Not either or.
A practical example of how the balance in consciousness may be forgotten: This past week we studied chapters 5-6 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, beginning with the antitheses: “It was said of old….but I say to you,” and continuing through the Our Father, the warnings about “not laying up treasures for yourselves on earth,” and to the injunction “not to worry about what you will eat…Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” and so on. These are majestic, magisterial teachings, in which Matthew’s Christ takes the place not only of Moses, but of Yahweh-God who spoke through Moses. After the class, I felt disturbed, thinking that I had not done a fair job. Carol and Steve said that it was “fine,” a nebulous word that usually means, “Just okay,” or “Not so good, really.” Well, it was not so good. The interpretations of Christ’s teachings were reasonably accurate, but there was a major problem: taken out of context, with all of that heavy-duty divine law, God’s mercy and love easily get overlooked. I should have reminded them of the beatitudes again, or assured them of God’s love. Why? Because it is not balanced to present Christ as the Law-Giver, without also presenting him as the one who bore the cross for us, and who says at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Behold, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.” Unintentionally, I fell into the trap of the law-giving Christ, without balancing it with Christ the Suffering Servant, the bridge between us sinners and the all-good God. I spoke as a scriptural exegete (one of Matthew’s “scholars,” perhaps), and not as one in union with Christ. At least I sensed that something was wrong with my presentation. For how long have the Catholic faithful been presented with the Law-Christ, and not at the same time encouraged to take confidence in the Merciful One? If one hears only the Law, one becomes—or should become—painfully aware of one’s failures; that is a beneficial effect of “preaching the Law,” as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt chapters 5-7). But to be true to reality, balance is ever necessary. I will correct the imbalance this coming week, lest I continue the injustice to those present.
So Christ’s law makes us aware—painfully aware—of our shortcomings, our failures; but Christ’s love makes us aware—gratefully aware—that even in our unlovability, Christ died for us, and loves us, and is present with us and for us. As the Apostle Paul writes, “Christ shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5). The Apostle is saying in his words the same thing I sketched out above: God loves the human being even in our radical unlovability, even in our sins, failures, blindnesses. God loves the unlovable; and agape-love means that one in Christ seeks to do the same: love the other even when s/he is far less than noble and good and lovable. Finally, I think that it is much less difficult to misrepresent Christ using the letters of the Apostle Paul than using St. Matthew’s Gospel, unless the whole Gospel is kept in mind as the parts are studied, and that is difficult to do. There is nothing wrong with Matthew’s Gospel as such; on the contrary, it masterfully presents Christ as Master, Teacher, God-with-us, and the Suffering Servant who died to return us to awareness that I AM with you.
In short, even in our unlovability, Christ loves us. Christ is, remember, a magnificent symbol of the Presence of God in and with human beings. Hence, even in our unlovability, God utterly loves us and is present to us, with us. That is his nature, and his joy. As Julian of Norwich reports Jesus on the cross telling her in his agony, “if I could suffer more, I would suffer more.” Infinite and undefeatable is the abyss of divine Love.
Gladly will I descend into the void that is myself if it induces me to trust more fully in the unwavering, undefeatable Presence of God as love, mercy, peace, truth—all good, all at once. I will not descend into the abyss that is my soul without exercising faith as conscious awareness and trust, because then I find myself imprisoned in the hell of my own unlovable self. In a word: Not for me. I much prefer to live in the light of God’s loving goodness than in the darkness of my own unlovability. The Apostle Paul wrote, “When I am weak [in myself], then I am strong [in Christ].” I say: When I am unlovable in myself, then I am utterly loved in and by Christ. That formulation is truer to reality than the one-sided preoccupation with human sin, or just with divine love (“God loves everybody…”) without realizing how unlovable in ourselves we are, yet utterly loved. Once again, the balance of truth must be kept in consciousness, less than fall into despair in oneself or presumption that “I’m really a just and good person, as I am.” The miracle and power of God’s love shows up more fully in light of our genuine need for God. The awareness of our need for God requires that we are aware of the emptiness and unlovability within our own souls. If we admit our spiritual emptiness in ourselves, what happens? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God” (Mt 5). Blessed—supremely happy—are the ones who know how much, how deeply, they need divine mercy and love. Woe to those who are rich in themselves. As one man once proclaimed to me after refusing the sacrament of reconciliation before marriage, “I am a just man.” His poor wife, living with such a blind and self-satisfied man, which is another way of describing a fool.
And so into the abyss of my own soul I descend, not to remain there or to wallow in myself, but to become more aware of the awesome wonder of God’s loving, self-giving Presence. One must realize just how great is his need for God. If you want to become more aware of your need for God, consider how empty you are in yourself, how unlovable even you are apart from the divine Presence, which is sheer “grace.”
A prayer: Christ, light of my soul, illuminate me. You who are ever near, make me strongly aware of my need for you, and at the same time, give me firm trust in your eternal goodness and love even to me—that I am not only “a sinner,” but a badly wounded man from the battles and trials of life. I thank you, LORD, for my wounds, for my brokenness, because through interior suffering you teach me to draw on You, the divine healer, and to surrender myself ever more fully into your merciful, peaceful, indwelling Light. Amen.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
17 January 2020
Having just written on the tension in the soul between the emptiness within oneself and divine Presence, I was about to report and examine a concrete experience of divine Presence when I was a young man. I shall postpone analyzing that experience until the next section, because I feel nudged from within to give the Muses their due. I titled this series of short blogs “On seeking God in solitude and friendship.” Evidently, I work and write in solitude, as I live alone; but I am never fully alone, as previously explained: through remembering, others are present to consciousness. I have mentioned and will subsequently develop in sections the divine Presence, the great gift of God to everyman. But I also feel that it is just to honor the Muses, which in my case are concrete persons that have and do inspire me. When it comes to those Muses still living on earth, I shall not name names out of respect for anonymity. But for those Muses who died, and who still affect my consciousness through remembering, I may mention names. I do not wish, however to present a list, but more simply to adumbrate, to hint at a few of the Muses singing in my soul these days.
Out of gratitude, the first Muse I must mention is Fr. Daniel Kirk, OSB, whom I called “the midwife of my soul’s rebirth” in a poem I wrote many years ago. Fr. Daniel died in 2008, shortly before my mother. I am not conscious of his presence in me or to me, except through remembering his words and actions. I still revere him as a true man of God, a genuinely saintly man. Through Fr. Daniel, I know well what holiness is, and what it is not. Often Catholics will label someone as “holy,” but if you ask them what is meant, they are not much better Euthyphro. A holy human being is open, flexible, attentive, gentle, kind, meek, utterly self-giving, self-forgetting, and profoundly aware of the Presence of God in them and to them. A truly holy man or woman does not insist on his or her ways (I Cor 13), however dressed up they are as “church rules” or “the law.” And a holy person is not religiously fixed or “dogmatic” at all, but moves through symbols into ongoing divine awareness. Hence, one who is growing in holiness, or holy, is truly tolerant of others’ spiritualities, knowing well that the Spirit has many ways of working. Holiness is so humble that one cannot insult a saint, however much one may try. The holy person absorbs evil from those of us who are far less holy, far more full of holes in our characters. Through the saintly Fr. Daniel, I received more good than I can ever express. I show my gratitude by seeking to put up with the weaknesses and failures of others as Fr. Daniel endured my flaws for so long. He is a true man of God, and although not married and with no children in the flesh, can truly be called “a manly man,” who was so utterly courageous, self-restrained, able to endure much suffering without any complaint. I do not mourn his death at all; he was in God as long as I knew him, and I have no reason to think that such a union perished with death. And so I thank God for Fr. Daniel in my life, and will ever sing his praises until I die. Here is to a true, humble, utterly reliable, saintly man of God: to you, my beloved Fr. Daniel, and to the Christ you carried so humbly.
One who also comes to mind may not be the most prominent Muse in my consciousness, but s/he sings fairly loudly and clearly these days. In reality, this Muse may well be a composite of several persons, fused into one in my mind (as in my recent efforts to write tanka). This Muse seems to have opened up my heart through kindness and acceptance, through agape. In all honesty I am intensely aware that it is the Risen Christ working in and through this particular Muse, as it was with Fr. Daniel. If we could be said to be friends, it is only because each of us lives in a faith-union with Christ. Otherwise, we have little or nothing in common, so friendship in the sense of shared common interests hardly seems possible. All that really matters between us is our personal free-responses to Christ; the rest is passing. This Muse may have quietly touched my heart in ways that I do not fully understand; I am ever a mystery to myself. Or it may be that several Muses together throw my little gold into the fire to encourage writing; I do not know. It is odd, but God has his skilled craftsmen, and his physicians. And surely the divine Master has ways of working on each soul, as that soul requires, in order to lift it into heaven—that is, into a living awareness of the Presence of the I AM in the soul. What has strongly contributed to any effect this Muse has on me is magnified by retirement, when I do not have to produce essays, lectures, written works for parishioners, or some eight homilies a week. The Spirit used the gift of time to help me write, I think, and may have allowed this amusing Muse to aid in the process through the most sacred mystery of divine agape.
Several other Muses still play in my spirit; although they have also died in the body, they live on through their writings, and in me through what I have absorbed from their written works over time. Foremost among these Muses are the Apostle Paul (whose name I was given in the monastery), the philosopher Plato, the philosopher-scholar Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), Willam Shakespeare (the foremost poet and dramatist in English), and many others. But at least these four must be mentioned by name. Only one of them did I meet in person—Eric Voegelin; our three-hour meeting on my twenty-fifth birthday remains a highly influential event in my spiritual-mental formation These thinkers inspire me daily. Until my mind no longer works in this life, I plan to draw on them for inspiration, insight, wisdom. And on those to whom they lead me, too. Wisdom is shared, and generously leads from mind to mind. The true lover of wisdom embraces wisdom in all forms presented to the mind. That is one reason I genuinely appreciate the Buddha, “the enlightened one.” Wisdom is known in her children.
One more Muse must be mentioned: the master musician. The very word “music” comes from “Muse” in Greek. The master musician, the composer who has had an enormous effect on my soul since I was eighteen, is Johann Sebastian Bach. And his name fittingly means “brook,” or a “stream.” Through Bach’s music, streams of divine music pour into me. As I have written elsewhere, my powerful conversion to Christ was largely prepared by the music of Bach. Often when I write, Bach sings in the background—whether on speakers or within my memory. Many have been led to Christ through the music of this foremost craftsman. If my spirit is down, listening to Bach nearly always restores joy and peace in my soul. He is a supreme Muse in my life. (How often I thank God for the German people and their highly skilled craftsmanship in so many arts and sciences.)
Having mentioned some particular Muses at work in me, it remains to consider how they actually operate on consciousness. “Say, what?” That means: I wish to understand how these Muses affect my thinking now, affect my soul. It is not enough to “name names,” and give short descriptions. I wonder: How is my consciousness move / affected by these Muses?
I do not consciously imitate any one of these Muses in any coherent way. Each human being is unique, and trying to imitate another in that person’s particulars seems foolish to me. I can no more be another Fr. Daniel Kirk, or in any way like him, than I could be like the Oracle at Delphi or the Virgin Mary, or like some rancher-cowboy with a guitar. We are too different in life experiences, in our temperaments, in our moral and intellectual characters. God respects and uses our differences—and does not seek to remold us in someone else’s image. It would not work anyway. Each one’s unique identity is a magnificent gift of the Creator, and needs to be discovered and improved within its particular characteristics and gifts. Imagine if the Apostle Paul had sought to spend his life in leather-working (tent-making), or had taken up his hand at sculpture. I doubt that anyone would remember his name. Christ grabbed him and used Paul with his unique, intensely emotional, lively personality, and active mind. The Apostle Paul was so much himself (“in Christ Jesus”) that a foremost Greek scholar could write that after Plato, it took nearly four hundred years for anyone writing in Greek to come across as truly, as personally, as alive as Plato in his writings; and that man was not a philosopher, but the Apostle Paul. His Greek is unmistakable, although he had disciples and partial imitators (possibly in the Letter to the Ephesians).
And through the Apostle Paul more change was wrought in history than through nearly anyone else. All political and military leaders pale in comparison to the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Paul was the foremost carrier of the Risen Christ in the apostolic generation, and his letters written for particular occasions have in turn moved and inspired major spiritual outbursts to the present. Socrates had his Plato, and Jesus had his Paul. “I have been co-crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I (ego), but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith-union with the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2). Not much in human history compares with such words for their transformative effects.
I would add for a young person who talks naively and vaguely about wanting to “change the world” (mindlessly quoting Karl Marx): Do you want to “change the world” (as if one could do so)? Then change yourself by opening up your spirit to the Risen Christ, and allow him to work in you and through you, as did Francis of Assisi for one—and as did the hidden saints, such as Fr. Daniel Kirk. “Not I, but Christ in me.” Such is the essence of genuine Christian spirituality. Very simple: Not doctrines, rituals, or sacred books, but the Risen Christ in a human being who responds wholeheartedly. Or to state the same experience in more philosophical, less specific terms: what matters most is that a human being keeps responding to the divine Presence as he or she is moved to do. God has many ways of working on a human soul. (And the Muses are among these ways.)
“This above all,” as Shakespeare wrote, “unto thine own self be true.” The self to which one must be true is not one’s private ego, one’s particular and self-centered existence—as is promoted by contemporary American culture. (Listen to the singing of pop musicians, and you are very likely to hear ego sounding large.) Rather, one must be true to his unique gifts in God, to the person or “self” that God restores in union with Christ. One must spend himself / herself as generously as possible. These Muses of mine make me aware that the Spirit of the living God uses each of his instruments uniquely. Our task is to surrender ourselves to the divine Presence within, to discover our talents and gifts, and then to pour them out generously until death. The greater the death to our own ego, the more fully Christ can employ us for good.
When I sit to reflect, to pray, to write, these Muses of mine are often at work. Translation into more typical symbolic language: the holy Spirit—divine Presence in and to a human psyche—often brings to mind words from one of these persons who has profoundly affected us: one’s “Muses.” Usually I do not have to search for “the right words,” although there are times when thoughts must be polished. Generally, as I reflect, some insight, symbol, phrase from one of these or other Muses comes to mind, and “out jumps this calf.” I have often wondered about how and why words come into consciousness. The process is mysterious and fascinating. However the process works, some of the words from one of the Muses mentioned, or from other Muses of mine, come into consciousness, and the words flow. I cannot imagine my writing if I had never studied Plato, the Apostle Paul, Shakespeare, Voegelin, or others. They have become a part of me; while thinking, their words may take new life in me. Thank God, these foremost thinkers took the effort to write, to share their own experiences and thoughts in a form which could later influence other minds.
One’s task is to “stock the pond,” as I have often put it: Study closely the best thinkers and writers, and then in time, these writers will have an affect on one’s thinking, way of living, writing. A person immersed in popular culture will strongly reflect popular culture, however superficial and transient it is. Listen to the speech of many people, and you hear bits of entertainment swirling around, like pieces of tin foil blowing in the wind.
One must discover and study closely the best writers, the greatest works of art, the finest musical compositions, if he or she wishes to embody and reflect the best. When I asked Professor Voegelin, “What allowed you to accomplish so much philosophically?” he answered, “I read the right books, I guess.” I have long interpreted his response as richer than it appears. Yes, Voegelin “read the right books,” and after responding, he placed into my hands a copy of Edward Norden’s Agnostos Theos, The Unknown God (as referred to by the Apostle Paul speaking in Athens according to his disciple, the evangelist Luke.) But the “I guess” in Voegelin’s response—a very untypical phrase for him—hints at a deeper answer, in the same way that Socrates and Plato could imply far more than they stated. Voegelin dedicated each of the five volumes of his masterwork, Order and History, not “to the best books I read.” On the contrary, these well-labored books were dedicated “Coniugi Dilectissimae,” “to a most delightful union.” Voegelin used the Latin phrase that hinted at several meanings. Literally, “to a most delightful union” or marriage indicates that he dedicated his works to a personal Muse, to his beloved wife, Lissy. But there is another meaning, as is typical of mystic-philosophers such as Plato, Plotinus, and Voegelin. The “most delightful union” is what allowed Voegelin to accomplish so much in philosophy. And that union was with what he often referred to as “the divine,” or “divine Presence,” or simply as “Presence.” Voegelin’s union was with the Muse of Muses: the living God himself. He was intellectually too humble to say it so directly.
—Wm. Paul McKane
17 January 2020
The last section (#5) in this series on “Seeking God in Solitude and Friendship” referred to the German-Austrian-American scholar and philosopher, Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). I will share again several spiritual experiences I had while speaking with this man on 21 January 1976. With his permission, I visited him at his home off the campus of Stanford University where he lived in retirement from his years as a distinguished professor; he remained actively involved in philosophical research until his death on 19 January, 1985, at the age of eighty-four, respectable given his life as a scholar and as a man who enjoyed cigars. (On his deathbed, he dictated to his loyal secretary his last writing on God.) When I met Dr. Voegelin, he had just turned seventy-five, and appeared in good health. He was nicely over six-feet tall, not fat, and after years of being in America, still spoke with an unmistakable German accent. I was twenty-four at the time of our meeting, and working on my doctoral dissertation on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy: The Case of the Apostle Paul.” Of all the materials on the Apostle that I had read, I found Voegelin’s chapter in his Ecumenic Age (1974), “The Pauline Vision of the Resurrected,” to be the most thought-provoking. I considered myself highly fortunate to have been granted so much time with this formidable thinker. Throughout the three-hour conversation, he gave me brief answers; the burden was entirely on me to ask the right questions. I have often thought about and mentioned his response to my question, “What is the Holy Spirit?” He immediately responded with a question, “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” That remains the best single insight into the working of the Holy Spirit in a person’s mind that I have ever received. And by asking his question—itself evidence of the Spirit by Voegelin’s own account—the philosopher validated my preferred approach to the things of God: not primarily religious practice, nor doctrine, nor rituals, but a genuine intellectual search for the God who moves one to seek. I owe to Professor Voegelin an enormous spiritual and intellectual debt which I can best repay by studying his voluminous writings, gaining from them, and sharing anything I learn with others.
Voegelin’s question-response to me validated the search for God using the intellect, open to the Holy Spirit. During the same conversation, I had what may be one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. Unlike other experiences with which I was familiar, this one did not directly occur in my consciousness, although my consciousness was involved more than I realized for some time. What I saw with my eyes is difficult to put into words. While he was speaking, I perceived a powerfully bright light that seemed to be in and through Voegelin’s head. He was radiant, and it appeared as though light came from his head. He was not “transfigured,” or at least not as far as I know. The way I understood the experience, and still do, is that his intellect was penetrated by the divine Intellect, which appeared to me as illumination. He was reflecting, or better, embodying the divine Presence. What I have only gradually realized is that my own mind was involved; I was not a passive observer. Rather, I recall those words of Jesus to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, and the hears that hear what you hear.” I would say that by divine assistance, my mind was receptive to the experience of divine Presence illuminating Professor Voegelin. When I have read through various accounts of Voegelin by his students, I have not come across anyone who had this experience. My experience was genuine, and either others chose not to mention a similar experience (for whatever reasons), or did not have it. Although it may in some ways be risky to recount such experiences, I think that they bear retelling and sharing. In fact, as Voegelin told me, that is what the Apostle Paul would have done with his companions at night around a campfire: shared their experiences in Christ. In our culture, how many cheer loudly at a football or basketball game, and yet have never experienced a human being radiating the divine Mind, or would even care to hear about such an experience? Consider our choices. Even those who proclaim themselves to be “Christians” and can recount the story of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountain probably would have no interest in such an experience as I had with Professor Voegelin. Why? I think that most people like their “religion” safely tucked away in a book they can carry, or in a church where they feel “comfortable.” Canned religiosity is all-too-common in our age; indeed, that has probably been true for centuries, given the state of Christianity today. Finally, I do not assume that Voegelin was an exceptionally “holy man” in the religious or even spiritual sense. But he may have been; he was surely charitable, cordial, and patient with me (I add that, although at first his powerful and direct responses seemed off-putting and made me squirm as if under a very bright light, I quickly realized that the problem was in me, not in him.) Whether Dr. Voegelin was supremely good or not, I do not know, nor do I need to know; what I do know is that he had a very powerful intellect that was profoundly open to divine Presence. That is what showed up in the man, as it shows up in page after page of his voluminous writings—at least “for those with eyes to see.”
I do not doubt the reality of my experience. I know what I saw, and I am aware of how it affected me. That was the first time I saw a human being penetrated by God, illuminating divine Presence, but it turned out not to be the only time. It is a surprising experience—peaceful, uplifting, and at the same time guiding. It shows the participant “the path of life.” I am far more likely to listen to, believe, and respect a human being in whom I have experienced divine Presence than in the kind of soul that is embittered, close-minded, self-enclosed, self-absorbed, or religiously doctrinal. No doubt many persons who encountered the Buddha or Jesus or Francis of Assisi, to name three well-known cases, had life-changing experiences in and through these spiritually intensely alive human beings. If I may say so, that is how God works in us and through us for each other.
Question: Is the divine selectively present, or always present in human beings? Is it possible that the divine is ever seeking to fill or flood human consciousness, but all-too-few cooperate? Voegelin often claimed in his writing that his experiences were not exceptional. It may be that some men and women are far more responsive to the divine Presence than others; and that the more one responds, the more powerfully present God becomes in that person. In this way, man’s will, human cooperation, is a necessary partner in the divine-human action, and human freedom is taken into account. If this is true, and I think it is, then we can maintain that God does not just haphazardly select a few “blessed souls” in whom to dwell. Rather, to anyone who listens, opens up, obeys, such extraordinary experiences show us what is possible by “faith working through love,” to use the Apostle Paul’s phrase. I will add, however, that there are indeed extraordinary modes of divine Presence, and of divine gifts. Moses is an exceptional human being in history, and to that I would add some of the great prophets, such as Jeremiah; the Hellenic philosophers; the Buddha; Confucius; the Apostle Paul; and most especially, Jesus of Nazareth. What they experienced can, to some extent, be replicated or perhaps more dimly experienced in other human beings. The divine opportunity—grace—is freely available; our task is to accept that grace, and to live it faithfully unto death.
The Apostle Paul, who knew much about extraordinary spiritual experiences, writes: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace [Presence] of God that was with me (I Cor 15:10). God’s favor and free Presence comes to many; a few work extraordinarily hard, employing the gifts given at every opportunity. Perhaps these are the ones in whom God’s Presence, his “glory” shines out most especially. When I consider such men as Plato, the Apostle Paul, Thomas Aquinas, William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Eric Voegelin, their extraordinary efforts—their nearly super-human efforts in their respective fields of endeavor—stand out. It is not enough by any means to be “highly gifted” with divine gifts or human talents; one must spend his or her life tirelessly in using these gifts. And then God’s glory shines out: “Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to you be the glory,” in the words of Psalm 115. We would all do well to reflect on the parable of the man who buried his one talent in the earth, believing that the Master (God) is harsh, and feared his punishment (Matthew ch 15). He squandered his life.
That I have sufficiently used divine gifts, I truly doubt. I have squandered opportunities to study, to learn, to write, to teach, to pray, to do charitable deeds. But I also trust God’s mercy, and know that he has compassion on those of us who labor under emotional, mental, or physical burdens, as so many do. Then again, it is astounding to see how some men and women have risen far above their various handicaps, and achieved much. So rather than offer excuses for my lack of dedicated work, I should now seek to apply myself better to using whatever gifts I may have. I am ever conscious that my time on earth is quickly running out. “Out, out, brief candle…”
University studies and teaching occupied my life from 1969 until I entered St. Anselm’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Washington, DC, in 1982. (I had been teaching at the Catholic University in DC before becoming Catholic.) After undergraduate studies at the University of Washington (1969-1972), I pursued a doctorate at Indiana University (1972-1974), but decided to leave after earning a Master’s Degree with my thesis, “The Gnostic Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Professor Voegelin—to whom I sent a copy of the thesis when completed—called my “methodology of recourse to experience” “impeccable,” which to this day remains the highest honor I have received, for it came from the man I consider the greatest philosopher of my lifetime.
During the period of my life that I spent pursing doctoral studies and writing my dissertation in political philosophy at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1974-1979), I had the conversation with Professor Voegelin, noted above, as well as some other special spiritual experiences that in retrospect were preparing me to give my life to “seeking God” in the peace of a Benedictine monastery. At the time, I barely knew that Benedictines existed, or what or who they were, if I knew the name; indeed, I was not Catholic, but a Lutheran Christian.
One Sunday morning during our Lutheran church service, an extraordinary experience was granted. As usual after the sermon, the congregation rose and sang words from Psalm 51: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy spirit from me” (Ps 51:10-11). As I was singing the familiar response on this occasion, suddenly it occurred to my mind that when the psalmist (“David”) prayed these words, he had a sense of already being “in God’s presence” (or why would he have asked, “Cast me not away from thy presence”?) At the moment I realized this, I became intensely aware of God’s presence. I could barely remain standing, and sat promptly with the congregation when the singing ended. The experience took several forms. First, I felt that I was no longer singing “on my own,” but was being “sung through,” as if my voice was being used by the divine presence. It sounded like me, was my voice, but I was not the one “doing it,” or powering it; it came from the Presence, which I interpreted to be God. At the same time, I felt overwhelmed by the Presence, which felt as though it was both inside me, within my mind or conscious awareness, and at the same time, radiating out of me. It felt as though a powerful force field was in me and through me. (Later I surmised that such experiences lay behind painting “halos” around saints—artists were symbolizing the experience of divine Presence.) While caught up in the experience, suddenly I thought, “This is neat. I wonder if others know what is happening to me?” As that thought arose, the experience of direct presence faded; as I let go of the thought about what others may have thought and attended to the direct presence, it again intensified. (Later I interpreted this movement as the tension between my pride and simple divine grace.) I do not know how long the experience lasted in external time, but perhaps one or two minutes. Within the experience, it was “forever,” so intense was it. It was an intensely joyful, awake experience, I must add. I interpreted it to be an experience of eternity within bodily time; it was not a “temporal event” with a cause in space-time. After the intensely personal experience ended, “the word of the Lord” welled up from my depths, and into consciousness. It came right out of my “center,” or “spirit,” if I may put it that way. I did not hear any external sound, but my thought was being used by the divine speaker, just as my voice had previously been used. I never forgot the words I heard: “Your life work is to have such experiences and to seek to understand them.” The language was English, the “voice” was my own, the words chosen reflected my own intellectual formation and consciousness, but the source and authority within them was unmistakably from what we call “God,” or “the LORD.” This would not be the only time in my life that “the word of the LORD came to me,” using the prophet Jeremiah’s favorite phrase. When you hear such a word or utterance, you will know it. The authority and source are self-validating. It would take a serpent to ask, “Did God really say…” (Genesis 2).
In prayer, meditation, study, preaching, and in such writings as I am now doing, I have sought to understand the experiences granted. My ignorance and perhaps pride leave me unworthy of adequate understanding; but God knows the truth of what happened (as the Apostle Paul wrote concerning his “ékstasis” or being taken out of the body, recounted in II Corinthians chapter 12). I should add that in preaching Christ during my years of active priestly ministry, I drew on such experiences to help me understand Christ and his teaching, although I usually avoided referring directly to such experiences in homilies (although I made a few references in adult faith classes, and in writings over the years). The New Testament Gospels and letters are replete with similar and more astonishing spiritual experiences (and most notably, perhaps, Paul’s vision of the Resurrected Christ), which make no sense and are usually overlooked or treated in a literalistic way by those who have not in some genuine ways “tasted.” Such experiences have gradually purged me from being a “doctrinal Christian,” or from being overly attached to liturgy, ritual, Sacraments, “the Bible,” or “church authorities” (as if they are God on earth). What matters most is that human beings encounter the living God, and share their loving responses with others through charity. Again quoting the Apostle Paul, “the only thing that counts is faith working through love [agape]” (Gal 5:6). Loving trust in God working through love—charity for “one’s neighbor” is what matters. The rest is relatively insignificant, and yet so many make so much of these things. Frankly, it has been disturbing to see what has happened within organized Christianity, and how often the priests and supposed “ministers of the word” seem not to understand what they are supposed to be doing. Again, they should heed the Apostle: “My little children, with whom I am in travail, until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
As previously noted, in my search to respond to God I entered a Benedictine monastery in 1982, and was clothed as a monk, and given the name “Paul” by my Abbot. Out of a desire to serve others in need, and frankly a willingness to die in battle (there was much talk about “body bags” as we first faced Saddam Hussein), I entered the U.S. Navy to serve as a chaplain during the First Gulf War (1991). The war ended quickly, I was sent to Okinawa, Japan, with our Marines, and then continued to serve in active priestly ministry until retirement in 2018. I remain a monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, but am, fortunately for them and for me, permitted to live and work “outside the walls.” And so I live and write in my beloved home state of Montana.
As previously noted, I have little doubt that I have not adequately lived up to the divine assignment—have not avidly sought to understand the experiences granted. When a man or woman fully surrenders to the grace granted, s/he produces the kinds of writings we see in Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, the Gospel writers, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Voegelin, not to mention the active saintly lives (and contemplative writings) of St. Francis and St. Claire, of Meister Eckhardt, of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so on. Their divinely-granted experiences (“graces”) were not squandered, although I suspect that each of them would humbly say that they had not done all that they could have done in response to God’s action in them and for them. The worthy response to divine action is nothing less than total self-giving back in love. It is endless.
By way of conclusion to this six-part essay or blog, I raise a question: Where do I go from here? I still feel inclined to write, to seek to understand divine workings in human beings. For reasons I may not altogether grasp at this time, my preference is to write poems or short imaginary works of literature, rather than continue writing in essay mode (as offered here). Only by writing will I see what emerges.
—Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
18 January 2020
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
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