How do you seek God? Or, do you seek God? Are you content that you have attained a full and satisfactory understanding of who or what God might be? Has your journey come to its end? Is there nothing that you sense awaits you beyond your present understanding and degree of happiness? Again, are you seeking God? If so, how do you seek?
Here I shall give a brief summary statement of ways in which I seek God. Knowing me to the extent that I do, I will overlook some significant ways in which I seek and respond to the divine presence.
The ways I seek are many, a truth that makes me uneasy with static ways of seeking-responding, such as living in a monastery. For there, monks are engaged regularly and faithfully in chanting or reciting the divine office, celebrating the Eucharist together daily, each one having some manual or clerical work to do for the good of the community, many have positions teaching or working outside of the monastery, and so on. In short, there are good reasons why, although I am a Benedictine monk in solemn vows, I cannot live in peace within the structures of Benedictine monasticism. Each one of us has unique ways of living out our faith, of loving God and of neighbor, and of trying to respond more faithfully to what we call “God” in the search for truth, for happiness, for wholeness. I am genuinely thankful for the various ways of seeking God that have developed and evolved in my life. At the same time, I wish to be true to myself by exploring the paths that have developed, and not rejecting some ways out of hand, or limiting myself to one or two of these ways. Is it possible that I could live in a vowed community and be reasonably happy? Perhaps so, but at present, this is not a risk that either my Benedictine community nor I am willing to take. Returning to the structures of monastic life could arouse in me considerable anxiety, a problem that made living in our monastery so difficult for me, and hence for others who had to live with me. “This above all, unto thine self be true.” I felt imprisoned in such a static, structured life, and at this time I cannot entertain doing that to myself.
How do I seek God now, and what ways may have weakened over the years? I rarely now seek God through praying the divine office. After years of trying to pray the liturgy of the hours while living outside the monastery (as a Navy chaplain, then as a parish priest), I found that it did not seem to work for me. Recitation of the divine office seems well suited to communal life, and not to individual spirituality—despite being “required” of clerics in the Catholic Church living and praying on their own. On the other hand, what has developed in my practice of structured prayer often has included the psalms of the Hebrew Bible as well as Scriptural readings, but not in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours (the divine office). Rather, years ago I found in me a strong preference for reading / praying the Psalms through in order, in different translations, and occasionally with recourse to the Hebrew (which I can barely read, but can discover key language symbols), or even by studying the Greek text of the Septuagint. Rarely have I read the Psalms in Jerome’s Latin. More often I have read / prayed some psalms in German. Far more often, I have employed the Jewish translation of their own Scriptures (in the Tanakh), a translation that I have found fresh and meaningful. Otherwise, I often study either the Revised Standard translation (with the King James underlying it), or the Grail Psalter, from which we sang for years at St. Anselm’s Abbey; apparently, our community has employed at least one other translation since I departed in 1991 to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy. Since retiring from active ministry in 2018, I have not had as frequent recourse to the Psalms as I did for years, but it may well be time to return to reading / praying them through in the order in which they were placed in the Hebrew Bible. This study should make a good Lenten practice for me this year. The psalms are poems, and I often have preferred to read thoughtfully a wider-range of poetry than just what is found in the Hebrew bible (the “Old Testament,” as Christians style it)
For years I put considerable effort and time into learning to sit quiet and still in the Presence of God. Especially influential on me was the way taught in the Cloud of Unknowing. I supplemented this method of patient love with studying and practicing Zazen (sitting meditation) as developed in the Buddhist tradition. Presently I go through periods of daily practice, and then slough off for a while, although I still feel drawn to return to the regular practice of daily “sitting,” as I prefer to call it. Seeking to attune oneself to the unseen, unfelt divine Presence is, I believe, one of the two foundational spiritual exercises of my life. The other is seeking God through charity—self-giving love—as I sought to do while serving in active priestly ministry, and now do more through writing than in any other way. In short, two of my most important and recurring modes of praying are sitting with the LORD in silence, and in active deeds of lovingkindness, in which one seeks to help form Christ in oneself and in others to whom one is “sent.”
To these two foundational modes of seeking God I should add one more, to which I have had frequent recourse since about the age of twenty: a close study of sacred texts. These texts have most often been from the Bible of Christianity (the “Old and New Testaments”), but since my high school years, I have not been adverse, by any means, to employing other sacred writings in order to think about, to meditate on, the reality of God and His ways in and among human beings. Often I read passages from the New Testament (especially from the Letters of the Apostle Paul and from the canonical Gospels) both in the original Greek text and in a good English translation, sometimes with notes, more often just by studying the Greek. My sense of communion with the writer of the sacred text has often been strong; if it were not, I doubt that I would return to these texts again and again. Now the particular author of the text—the Apostle Paul, the evangelists John and Luke, for examples—one seeks to commune with the Resurrected Christ and with the unknown God beyond all “revelation.” For example, when the Apostle Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2), these words are intensely and personally real to me. They express past and present experiences, and point the way to live Christ more faithfully: dying to self. Other sacred texts have come from a wide range of traditions—Lao-Tse, the Buddhist movements, ancient Hindu texts (for years the Bhagavad Gita, but increasingly the Upanishads), and of course writings by Christian spiritual masters—which are not called “sacred texts” in the Catholic tradition, but which often have the same effects in one’s soul as studying Scripture closely: a sense of union with God. (Note: this sense is never perfect, never complete, but at best a movement into divine presence.)
There are two other ways of seeking God that are extremely important in my life, and have been since at least since age twenty or so: studying philosophical texts (or other intellectually solid writings), and through the exercise of writing. For me to be happy and in peace, I must study; and long have I known that writing is a part of studying, because it focuses my mind and helps me to clarify my thinking. Furthermore, I have often shared the fruits of studying through teaching. Now that I am retired, with only one adult faith class meeting weekly, I have more time to write, and hope that something written will be of value to someone else’s spiritual journey. To what philosophical (or foundational texts) am I most drawn? Again, my present continues my life over the past five decades or so, and I find myself studying the minds that have so influenced me (not necessarily in this order): the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers; Plato; Aristotle; Plotinus; St. Augustine; St. Anselm; St. Thomas Aquinas; Shakespeare; Hegel; Nietzsche; Eric Voegelin. There are numerous others who at times have had a vast impact on my thinking. I also cherish the study of Greek tragedy and of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (the greatest poet and dramatist in our language). At times I read poetry, in part for its relative brevity compared to other forms of literature, but I am not averse to reading stories as well.
Other than the New Testament spiritualists and Plato, the German-Austrian-American scholar-philosopher Eric Voegelin has had the most influence on my mental development over the years. The Platonic dialogue that has most formed my life is the Republic (Politeia). The French thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (not a noble character by any means), said that the Republic is the greatest work on education ever written. I think that studying the Republic closely is the probably the greatest text for spiritual-intellectual education. To study the Republic is to undergo with the characters in the dialogue (notably Socrates) the ascent of the soul from the cave of a cultural and personal wasteland into the bright light of the God that is beyond all understanding. Of all the individual texts I have ever read, I would place only the Gospel of John in the same category as the Republic for spiritual formation, and the Republic is more of an intellectual formation as well. Studying Plato closely teaches one to question, to think, to gain insights into reality. In my opinion, there is no single writer in documented history to compare with the achievements of Plato. I feel drawn to study the two main dialogues on love again soon: the Phaedrus and the Symposium; these are the most profound and moving texts I know written on love.
It remains to mention other ways that I seek God, but first I should clarify the expression, “seek God.” In seeking God, one is primarily responding to the divine pulling or drawing one to seek. One is not searching in a meaningless void; on the contrary, before one calls, God as it work in the soul. A human being seeks the One already prevent and active in one’s psyche and in the world of which one is a part with body, mind, spirit. Hence, one should think of the two activities together: response and seeking. The search for God is not done in a Nietzschean void (a product of his imagination after rejecting God), but in a reality that is, in the words of ancient writers, “full of gods” or God. The divine penetrates reality, and all that exists in any way does so only by participating in the underlying “ground of being,” which we traditionally call “God.” In short, the search for God is primarily a mode of responding to God. In personal language, I seek God because God moves me to seek. Christ himself says, “Seek and you shall find.” And the more one seeks, the more one finds that the LORD, ever present in and with the soul, is the one who begins the search, guides the search, and fulfills the search. “Have I been with you so long, Philip, and yet you do not know me,” Jesus asks Philip (John 14). My response: You, Christ Jesus, are indeed “the way, the truth, and the life.” And long before I ever call on you, seek you, pray to you in any way, You are here with me. In St Augustine’s moving words that we should know are all too true, “You were with me, but I was not with you.” To which I hasten to add: LORD God, let’s make the best of my remaining years on earth, that I may find You in seeking you, and love you in finding you, to paraphrase the great St. Anselm.
This account of ways I seek God is highly incomplete. I must at least mention various other activities in which I regularly engage in my response-search for God.
First, listening to music, and occasionally studying it, is enormously important in my life. For several years in the monastery, I tried to be a “good monk” and avoid listening to music (as I avoided television and entertainment). I found it depressing in my psyche, and not at all spiritually valuable, to refrain from listening to good music. As one knows who reads my writings, I regularly listen to a wide-range of composers, but return again and again to a few. Without a doubt, the one composer who is most a companion of mine in my response-search for God is Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach composed music in many forms, many structures, but always with consummate compositional skills, with his powerful intellect, and with a profound faith in Jesus Christ that comes through the music—“for those who have ears to hear.” If I had only one musician to hear for the rest of my life, it would most surely be J. S. Bach. He is truly a spiritual friend of mine to the highest degree. To Bach I would add—always further down the line than the Meister Bach himself, would at least include the following (in chronological order): Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1757), Josef Haydn (1732-1809), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Franz Schubert (1797-1828). I should at least mention such composers such as Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Antonin Dvorak (the healthiest soul of this group), as well as more contemporary composers from various periods and countries.
How is listening attentively to good music a spiritual exercise, part of one’s response to God seeking him or her? In the case of men especially living before the effects of the Enlightenment and secularization, such as Tallis, Schütz, and J. S. Bach (there are many fine Bach composers, so we use his initials), the texts to which they set music for singing were often avowedly and unashamedly religious. With the main exception of setting the Catholic Mass to music (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert), under the intellectual-spiritual destruction of secular processes in western culture, the great musicians generally did not spend much time setting spiritual texts. There is a place for secular music—whether Wagner among serious composers, or some musicians writing for a mass audience in our lifetimes—but one should indulge in it sparingly, I believe. If one eats only French fries and potato chips, we all know the likely result. But if one attentively listens to great composers who were grounded in the divine through faith and love, one will be nourished whether the music is composed to texts or not. Many compositions by Bach are not set to words, but in listening, one may become aware of God, or experience peace of heart, or feel energized and inspired by beauty and order (through musical structure). Good music immerses the active listener in beauty and in divine order, and such an activity is refreshing and formative
I must add to this account of ways of seeking God: taking walks in nature, usually with my dogs; viewing the night sky in wonder and gratitude for existing; being with my dogs, given their good characters and friendliness; small prayers from the heart, often of thanksgiving or praise, sometimes of petition; and friendship—spending time with friends. And for me, photography, I hobby I have had for years.
On friendship I have written previously. For the present purpose, let this suffice: Several times I was sharply criticized in my monastery for wanting to have one or several close friends. As several monks told me, “We do not have a charism for friendship in this monastery,” and more generally, one not infrequently heard warnings against having “particular friendships.” As I would say, “Friendships are only particular,” meaning one actual human being loves and cares for another human being, with mutual affection and good will. There has been in monasteries, and in Catholic religious and priestly life in general, a centuries-old attack on “particular friendships.” What was encouraged was for the monk or priest to “cast yourself solely on God,” and not rely on human friendship. In my opinion, this was a non-human (or rather, anti-human) and destructive spirituality, based in part on a fear of sex in any form—probably part of the influence of Gnosticism on early Christian experience (and even to the present, in various forms). It was an unhealthy and even perverse teaching, and although now openly criticized by many, it still has its defenders among Catholic writers. Aristotle had much more common sense than one finds among such Catholic writers. As Aristotle wrote, in effect: “No one would want to live with all of the good things in life, but not have close friends.” My heart says: “You’re right on target, as usual, Aristotle!” The attempt to live without close friends causes spiritual isolation, depression, morbidity, lack of energy, a life of self-absorption, and so on. And there was no lack of such lives in our monastery. Life without good friendships is not worth living. And as I had to insist recently, when pushed by my superiors to become a hermit: I am not in any way suited to be a hermit. I need good human companionship in this world.
In my case, not only my life in the monastery, but my demanding duties in active priestly ministry often cost me the opportunity to build good friendships. Not only was the work load demanding, but often I was moved around by bishops so frequently that friendships being built were quickly damaged or ended. That was indeed harmful to me, and I can only thank God that in my few remaining years I can “put down roots” and build some good friendships, although as Aristotle also explains, the elderly do not make friends easily. Nor do those of us who are “single,” living in locations in which nearly everyone is married, or at least has a family (as in my small-town area of Montana). Friendships for those like myself are difficult to build, but essential for happiness. I have no doubt that God wills our happiness, and that to be happy one must have true, good, and long-term friendships. A very challenging task for me.
In my present understanding, and from the perspective of one’s spiritual life: A friend is one with whom one can truly be himself, herself; and a friend is someone in whom you find the presence of God for you. A friend presents God to a friend; and when this presenting of God to one another is mutual, and done willingly, there is spiritual and true friendship. This simple statement should suffice for the present. I add only this: given my view of a friend presenting God, one should immediately understand why I found the monastic and Catholic spirituality of friendless existence as foolish and destructive of human life. In the words of Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone.” If one does not have a good and suitable spouse, one must have a true friend or two so as not to be isolated and alone, forced into an abyss of isolation and loneliness.
In all of my years of serving as a parish priest (1991-2018), I never made a single close friend among Catholic clergy; I made a few superficial friends, but genuine sharing of heart and mind was not part of the casual clerical “friendships.” The exception would be Fr. Steve in Stevensville; but I was not serving as a parish priest at the time, having been thrown out of the diocese by a heavy-handed, belligerent, and imprudent bishop. The diocesan clergy with whom I served admittedly saw me as “an outsider,” not as one of themselves—in western Montana, in Iowa, in South Dakota, and in eastern Montana. Had it not been for some good friendships with parishioners, I never could have endured the isolation of serving as a parish priest. Thank God I am now free of such church structures. It would be detrimental to my spiritual and mental health to return to a monastery, or to serve again in parishes, an issue that may deserve closer examination with coming months. I seek God by being free of Catholic structures (religious life, diocesan priesthood). Diocesan priests usually have their own families and fellow diocesan priests for friendship and support. Consider this: From many years of service, I do not even receive $1 a month for living expenses, so much was I appreciated by the institutional church. For turning in a priest for grand theft—embezzlement—the priest personnel board, I was told, unanimously voted to give me no benefits. In short, from my experience, diocesan clergy do not extend the hand of friendship to “outsiders,”—or to those with whom they disagree on various religious matters: not in Iowa, in South Dakota, nor in Montana. I concur with what one priest serving outside of his diocese said to me years ago: “It’s been a hell of a ride.” There is a large dose of a denial of reality in Catholic religious life (especially among men religious) and in the Catholic hierarchy. Again, this problem needs fuller treatment elsewhere. In sum, I note: I seek God in part by staying away from living within the structures of the Catholic Church in particular, but away from organized “religion” in general. “Know thyself.”
How do I seek God? How do I respond to God? I remain a Benedictine monk living outside of what felt to me like a mental-spiritual prison; and I remain a Catholic priest, grateful to have virtually nothing to do with diocesan clergy. I am not outside the Church, as I still count myself as a Christian in communion with other Catholic Christians. Nor do I seek isolation from them. I especially need the fellowship of friends in Christ—something that takes years to establish. This reality has been difficult to live because of the frequency of moves in my life. Just since leaving the monastery to serve as a priest on active duty (Navy and dioceses), I have lived in some 15-20 “permanent residences,” with all but one of these moves caused by the decisions of local bishops or (for several years) Navy chaplains. These frequent upheavals have cost me personally and spiritually. I feel a real need to put down roots now; still I find it very difficult to make good friends as a single man living among married folks in a small community. Hence, most of my search for God must take place alone and in a fairly painful degree of isolation from human community. I must endure this isolation as well as I can—a burden lightened, but not removed, by faith in God. I was not temperamentally designed for this kind of isolation, nor are many human beings.
In good conscience I wish to add this opinion: I would not recommend monastic life or that of a diocesan priest to anyone who intends to live a noble and balanced life. These ways of life encourage immaturity, irresponsibility, sexually “acting out,” theft, deceit, serious mental problems, and hypocrisy hidden by clerical garb and titles of respect. Or so it seems to me after some forty years of observation. Few are the men who can bear well these “vocations.” Again quoting Aristotle, “Outside of the polis (human community), man is either a beast or a god.” A good marriage is the foundation of good human community, and of personal happiness.
LORD God Almighty, You are the Beginning and the End, that from which all comes forth, and that to which all returns. God of all creation, God of every creature, you alone are all-beautiful, all-good, all-wise. To You I offer all that I am, all that I have. Guide me home by your life-renewing Spirit.
LORD Jesus, I need your friendship. I feel isolated and alone in SW Montana, a beautiful area, but one where I am not making friends. Truly, LORD, you alone are my home. Nothing else works well for me—not even friendship, which has proved ephemeral, or remote in space-time. Give me peace, LORD, in which to see the truth, and how to live today. I have been isolated and lonely since retiring from active ministry. A retired priest loses his community and way of life. LORD, have mercy on a human being in need.
Lord, what can we do? Can you befriend me in a way that really helps psychologically? Reach into my empty heart, as only you can do. Keep me still. Help me surrender now to your loving presence. Please Jesus, bridge the gap I feel that it is so wide, but for you—it is nothing, as you are present as God.
—Wm. P. McKane
25 January 2020 The Conversion of the Apostle Paul
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