--Sacred Heart by Cristie Henry
Go sweep out the chamber of your heart.
Make it ready to be the dwelling place of the Beloved.
— Mahmud Shabistari, 13th-century Sufi
When I was 10, I was in love with Miss Walker. After a series of wrinkly and stern grandma types who had been teaching for decades, in fourth grade there was twenty-something Miss Walker. Miss Walker at the chalkboard. Miss Walker in short skirts that showed her beautiful legs, Miss Walker with her electric-curler-created brown curls bouncing as she walked briskly down the hall. I would sign her name as if it was mine: Miss Nancy J. Walker. It was the first year I got straight As, and that was out of my deep adoration which demanded expression — I wanted to give something to she who seemed to lack nothing.
According to the dictionary, to adore is to “worship as God or a god” from the Latin adorare, which means “to pray to.” It is a deep, often rapturous regard that pours from the heart without concern for social custom or convention and, in its pure form, looks for nothing for itself but to love and pay homage to the beloved.
For the 13th-century mystic and poet Rumi, the adoration of his beloved teacher Shams of Tabriz led him into the wilderness of his heart, taking him through the depths of its dark pockets of longing and pain, and ultimately opening into the wide vista of his love for God and for all that is. The human heart, hung heavy with disappointments and sorrows, complete with sealed-off passages and hidden lonely caverns, longs to be known, to express itself fully in this world. It desires to bring the love that we are, beneath our accumulated pain and confusion, to this earthly plane through our eyes and our hands. For some, the yearning to live as love is so acute that there is no other choice but to travel this seemingly dangerous road of Rumi.
Traveling this road may mean wholeheartedly devoting one’s life to knowing the oneness of God. For others, it may mean a simple practice of allowing what we feel to be experienced and touched, without distraction or minimization so that we may come to know the depths of who we are. The shining truth and beauty of our hearts leaping at the sights or sounds that touch us can act as a tractor beam, drawing us onward as we explore and touch every desolate corner that stands between us and our inner beloved, and therefore also between us and all of creation.
In India, ashrams exist where a pilgrim can fall completely in love with an embodiment of God and seek shelter and solace in the haven of regular food, regular lodging and regular contact with the beloved while undertaking the heart’s journey. Given that the teacher is one of integrity and clarity, he/she can hold a space for temporarily allowing the devotee to see the teacher as God on the way to knowing him- or herself as God. The guru holds the space for the exploration of the longing, desperation, self-loathing, doubt and sorrow that come from living a human life. This way is revered in India, so a God-crazed love dog is generally treated by others within and without the ashram with tenderness and understanding.
The following poem by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, sheds light on the idea of a love dog:
One night a man was crying,
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
”So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of the souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
”Why did you stop praising?”
”Because I never heard anything back.”
”This longing you express is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of the dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
In our country, it is rare to find a circle where this tenderness and understanding are extended to one who deeply hungers for God and expresses it through great devotion, nor are there many socially accepted containers for traveling the path of adoration all the way to its end. We Americans tend to sexualize all adoration (that is, assume that it must be sexual), becoming suspicious of the man who adores the girl, the woman who adores the woman, the man who adores the man, etc. Gurus are widely suspected, seen as megalomaniacs or manipulators, and their followers are viewed as naive sheep. (This is not to say that there aren’t examples of men who adore girls that we should be suspicious of or gurus who are megalomaniacs.) The only widely accepted forms for expressing adoration are within a heterosexual couple or between parents/grandparents and children. The therapist/client relationship can also be an accepted container for this adoration to flourish and find its true home in the client’s own heart.
I remember the first teacher I met who allowed others to praise him and it felt clean. He came from a tradition in India, though he was American, and devotees were encouraged to write him poetry, to extol his virtues, and as far as I could tell, he was simply standing in for the Holy while we sang the reverence that was in our hearts. How wonderful to let loose the devotion I had felt for so many, but had held inside out of fear of being laughed at, rejected or rushed to bed, or used to fill someone else’s bottomless pit. For most, our egos are so hungry for validation that we can’t hold space for another to adore us — we are too interested in it, too starved for it ourselves to invite and hold space for its expression. We think it means something, and something about us, rather than seeing it as the natural expression of the holy through a human being.
The heart ideally needs a laboratory, in a sense, in its rocky course toward freedom, where many conditions are held consistent, such as (a) the adored and the one who is adoring are mutually aware of the holy context — in other words, that this is about God, and the adored holds that container if the adoring one gets confused; (b) the adored is willing to stay with the process (as opposed to lovers who sometimes leave); (c) the adored does not contaminate the container with his or her own personal needs; (d) the adoration doesn’t lead to anything concrete happening in the everyday world (such as dating, marriage, etc.); and (e) the adored is able (because he/she knows the territory) and willing (because he/she loves attending the birth of light) to witness and offer company through the gnarly parts of the journey without freaking out. Then the longing heart is free to adore, drool, blither, blather, be foolish; try its hand at poetry, at praising, at singing; descend into deep sorrow, feel jealous, try its wings.
Most of us know what it’s like to adore the average human and how much space he or she has for all of this. We have a certain amount of adoration we can tolerate before our “stuff” comes up, and we want to shoo the loving fan away, make fun of them, be mean to them, assume they are lying, assume they don’t know us, assume it’s all about us, assume perhaps the person is not “right” for us, etc. The task requires someone who has carved out her/his own heart to have space for another to play, and for that someone to create and maintain a clear laboratory for the exploration to proceed untainted.
Though we may not be aware of it at the time, when we are adoring another human being we are seeing God reflected in an earthly face, and our hearts call to plumb their depths. What we adore is the reflection of our own divine inner beauty — in a landscape, a flower, a serene face, a gentle manner. When we allow ourselves to adore, we become acquainted with the depths of our own hearts, allow ourselves to approach the grandeur within our own selves, and realize ourselves as love. When our hearts are still cluttered with old pain and fear, love moves only where it seems safe to move, only under certain conditions. The swept-clean heart is an indiscriminate lover: its nature is to love. It loves in every direction; it is love. It knows itself as love, and its joy is to love. It no longer is seeking fulfillment from the outside, looking with hungry eyes toward the false gods through which it was promised fulfillment. Instead, it has burrowed down through the rubble to the fresh wellspring of the Source and drinks there, overflowing outward.
What if we let ourselves love what we love? What if, at least within the privacy of our own solitude, we let ourselves notice what we adore? We have deadened ourselves out of not knowing what to do with the wealth of feelings inside. I recently met with a man in my travels who realized he unconsciously had stopped noticing that half the human race was made up of women. For him, acknowledging the presence of females almost always had ended in disappointment, discouragement, desperation and longing, and so on a subconscious level he had given it up. No wonder so many men gaze at images of women in the privacy of their own solitude: exposing that vulnerability to another human being even in the best of conditions can feel daunting, never mind the possibility of freshly eliciting scorn, fear or the unloading of years of a woman’s pain.
The simple invitation I gave this man was to walk around and notice that some people are women and to feel whatever was there. The point was not for him to get a woman, which is what men are taught will bring them salvation. The point was for him to reclaim the wilds of his own heart, to touch and explore them, and to return to a place where no woman could rival the internal love affair between him and his Source. Then we drink from our own inner spring, and relationship becomes a celebration of that rather than yet another attempt to squeeze a drop of love out of an external source that never will satisfy like the inner one.
When we adore, we tend to measure ourselves against our projected deity and we come up short. We are human, wanting, full of flaws, life-size, and the adored one seems larger than life. If we take the whole journey to reclaim our divinity, this is a temporary condition: painting our own holiness on another. Often, instead of honoring this opportunity to feel reverence and experience what is touched in our hearts, many of us use this flooding of insecurity to flee. Until the last decade, if I was attracted to someone, my strategy was to look at that person as little as possible and bury any sign of my attraction. What if the intensity of my adoration was seen, and right alongside, the squirming and writhing intensity of my self-loathing? What if the person decided it was something in particular — sexual attraction or an interest in dating or a supply to fill the black hole within — before I myself had the opportunity and space to explore it? It was better to stay safe and below the radar, doing damage control on those feelings, right?
Yet the key to plumbing the whole depth of the heart is precisely to dare to walk through this uncharted territory of squirmy things that rise when our hearts are drawn out beyond where we can maintain our cool. For many of us, that territory is gnarly enough to hobble us to the point of hiding forever, resulting in crowds of people walking around trying not to notice the beauty of their neighbors — throngs of hearts in hiding. However, the journey through this wild land is precisely what lets our hearts sing on this sweet Earth.
We can notice where we are drawn, where we love, consenting to have whatever feelings that come with it flood our bodies as we sit with them and let them sift and work themselves out. This willingness washes our hearts little by little until the full blaze that knows no fear is reclaimed, and we walk this Earth as love instead of looking for it. As Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky) writes, “Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye that is always saying, with that sweet moon language, what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?”
(c) Copyright 2007, Jeannie Zandi, all rights reserved.
Originally published in The Eldorado Sun, November, 2007.
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From the Christian esoteric tradition, a path beyond the mind
Put the mind in the heart…. Put the mind in the heart…. Stand before the Lord with the mind in the heart.” From page after page in the Philokalia, that hallowed collection of spiritual writings from the Christian East, this same refrain emerges. It is striking in both its insistence and its specificity. Whatever that exalted level of spiritual attainment is conceived to be—whether you call it “salvation,” “enlightenment,” “contemplation,” or “divine union”—this is the inner configuration in which it is found. This and no other.
It leaves one wondering what these old spiritual masters actually knew and—if it’s even remotely as precise and anatomically grounded as it sounds—why this knowledge has not factored more prominently in contemporary typologies of consciousness.
Part of the problem as this ancient teaching falls on contemporary ears is that we will inevitably be hearing it through a modern filter that does not serve it well. In our own times the word “heart” has come to be associated primarily with the emotions (as opposed to the mental operations of the mind), and so the instruction will be inevitably heard as “get out of your mind and into your emotions”—which is, alas, pretty close to 180 degrees from what the instruction is actually saying.
Yes, it is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.
And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.
According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen&rdquo, but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.
Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of this wider spiritual perceptivity is from Kabir Helminski, a modern Sufi master. I realize that I quote it in nearly every book I have written, but I do so because it is so fundamental to the wisdom tradition that I have come to know as the authentic heart of Christianity. Here it is yet again:
We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. Beyond the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative and creative faculties; and image-forming and symbolic capacities. Though these faculties are many, we give them a single name with some justification for they are working best when they are in concert. They comprise a mind, moreover, in spontaneous connection to the cosmic mind. This total mind we call “heart.”1
The purification of Muhammad’s heart by three Divine messengers. Bal’ami. Early fourteenth century
“The heart,” Helminski continues, is the antenna that receives the emanations of subtler levels of existence. The human heart has its proper field of function beyond the limits of the superficial, reactive ego-self. Awakening the heart, or the spiritualized mind, is an unlimited process of making the mind more sensitive, focused, energized, subtle, and refined, of joining it to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.2
Now it may concern some of you that you’re hearing Islamic teaching here, not Christian. And it may well be true that this understanding of the heart as “spiritualized mind”— “the organ prepared by God for contemplation”3—has been brought to its subtlest and most comprehensive articulation in the great Islamic Sufi masters. As early as the tenth century, Al-Hakîm al Tirmidhî’s masterful Treatise on the Heart laid the foundations for an elaborate Sufi understanding of the heart as a tripartite physical, emotional, and spiritual organ.4 On this foundation would gradually rise an expansive repertory of spiritual practices supporting this increasingly “sensitive, focused, energized, subtle, and refined” heart attunement.
But it’s right there in Christianity as well. Aside from the incomparable Orthodox teachings on Prayer of the Heart collected in the Philokalia, it’s completely scriptural. Simply open your Bible to the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:8) and read the words straight from Jesus himself: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
We will return to what “pure in heart” means in due course. But clearly Jesus had a foundational grasp on the heart as an organ of spiritual perception, and he had his own highly specific method for catalyzing this quantum leap in human consciousness. I have written extensively about this in my book The Wisdom Jesus, in which I lay out the principles of his kenotic [“letting go”] spirituality as a pathway of conscious transformation leading to nondual awakening. You will see there how this goal formed the core of his teaching, hidden in plain sight for twenty centuries now. I will be drawing on this material from time to time as it becomes pertinent to our present exploration. For now, the essential point is simply to realize that the teaching on the heart is not intrinsically an “Islamic” revelation, any more than it is a “Christian” one. If anything, its headwaters lie in that great evolutionary incubator of Judaism, in which more and more in those final centuries before the Common Era, the great Israelite prophets begin to sense a new evolutionary star rising on the horizon of consciousness. Yahweh is about to do something new, about to up the ante in the continuing journey of mutual self-disclosure that has formed the basis of the covenant with Israel. The prophet Ezekiel gets it the most directly, as the following words of revelation tumble from his mouth, directly from the heart of God:
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land I gave to your ancestors, and you shall be my people and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24–28)
A new interiority is dawning on the horizon, a new capacity to read the pattern from within: to live the covenant without a need for external forms and regulations, simply by living it from an inner integrity. And for the first time in Western history, this capacity to see from within is explicitly linked to the heart, and specifically to a “heart of flesh.”
Without any attempt to end-run the massive theological and historical parameters that have grown up around this issue, my bare-bones take on Jesus is that he comes as the “master cardiologist,” the next in the great succession of Hebrew prophets, to do that “heart surgery” first announced by Ezekiel. And his powerfully original (at least in terms of anything heretofore seen in the Semitic lands) method of awakening heart perceptivity—through a radical nonclinging or “letting go”—will in fact reveal itself as the tie rod connecting everything I am talking about in this book.
Do I Really Mean the Physical Heart?
Not to be naive here, but yes. We are indeed talking about the physical heart, at least insofar as it furnishes our bodily anchor for all those wondrous voyages into far-flung spiritual realms.
Again, the Eastern Orthodox tradition is not in the least equivocal on this point. Lest there be any tendency to hear the word as merely symbolic of some “innermost essence” of a person, the texts direct us immediately to the chest, where the sign that prayer is progressing will be a palpable physical warmth:
To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.5
The following instruction is even more specific:
When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.6
Mosaic, Jungholz, Austria
While the sheer physicality of this may make some readers squirm, the contemporary phenomenologist Robert Sardello is another strong advocate for a full inclusion of the physical heart in any serious consideration of the spirituality of the heart. When he speaks of the heart, as he makes clear in his remarkable book Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness, he is always referring to “the physical organ of the heart,” which merits this special consideration precisely because “it functions simultaneously as a physical, psychic, and spiritual organ.”7 It is this seamlessly tripartite nature of the heart’s field of activity that bestows its unusual transformative powers. While there are many spiritual traditions that focus on “the heart as the instrument through which religious practices take place,” Sardello feels that “these traditions do not focus on the inherent activity of the heart, which is already an act of a spiritual nature.”8
To demonstrate what this “inherently spiritual nature” of the heart might feel like, Sardello leads his readers on a profound voyage of discovery into the inner chambers of their own heart. Wielding those two classic tools of inner work, attention and sensation, he teaches us how to access the heart through concentrated sensation (rather than visualization or emotion) and there discover its inherent vibrational signature as “pure intimacy…intimacy without something or someone attached to that intimacy.”9
I have to say I followed that exercise several times and was astonished by the results. I had experienced something of that “pure intimacy” before, as that sort of golden tenderness that sometimes surrounds a period of Centering Prayer. But never had I experienced it with such force or clarity, as a distinct inner bandwidth resonating in perfect synchrony with (in Kabir Helminski’s words) “its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” No wonder the embodied aspect of heart spirituality is so important! For it is only through sensation—that is, “attention concentrated in the heart”—that this experience of utter fullness and belonging becomes accessible.10
Sardello is not the only voice in the field. There is now a substantial and growing body of “bridge literature” linking classic spiritual teachings on the heart with emerging discoveries in the field of neurobiology. I have already mentioned the pioneering work of the HeartMath Institute, but I want to call attention to two other fascinating and useful books for the spiritually adventurous nonspecialist: The Biology of Transcendence by Joseph Chilton Pearce11 and The Secret Teaching of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner.12 Marshaling considerable scientific data in a format easily accessible to a lay reader, each of these books demonstrates how contemporary science has taken us far beyond the notion of the heart as a mechanical pump to revision it as “an electromagnetic generator,”13 working simultaneously across a range of vibrational frequencies to perform its various tasks of internal and external self-regulation and information exchange. (An “organ of spiritual perception,” after all, can be understood in this context as simply an electromagnetic generator picking up information at far subtler vibrational bandwidths.) Both books call attention, as does the HeartMath Institute, to the intricate feedback loops between heart and brain—almost as if the human being were expressly wired to facilitate this exchange, which Pearce sees as fundamentally between the universal (carried in the heart) and the particular (carried in the brain). As he expresses it, “The heart takes on the subtle individual colors of a person without losing its essential universality. It seems to mediate between our individual self and a universal process while being representative of that universal process.”14 While such bold statements may make hard-core scientists writhe, from the spiritual side of the bridge it is easily comprehensible and brings additional confirmation that “putting the mind in the heart” is not merely a quaint spiritual metaphor but contains precise and essential information on the physiological undergirding of conscious transformation.
The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani. c. 1300 B.C. British Museum
What Gets in the Way?
According to Western understanding, the heart does not need to be “grown” or “evolved.” Every heart is already a perfect holograph of the divine heart, carrying within itself full access to the information of the whole. But it does need to be purified, as Jesus himself observed. In its spiritual capacity, the heart is fundamentally a homing beacon, allowing us to stay aligned with those “emanations from more subtle levels of existence” Helminski refers to, and hence to follow the authentic path of our own unfolding. But when the signals get jammed by the interference of lower-level noise, then it is no longer able to do its beaconing work.
Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.
Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”
Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?
Madonna and child. Saint Augustinus Church, Miguel Hidalgo, Federal District, Mexico
So once again we have to begin with some decoding.
If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience&rdquo is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.
This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.
What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.
Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.
Gravestone, Jewish Cemetery, Olesno, Poland
Emotion versus Feeling
Here again, we have an important clarification contributed by Robert Sardello. Echoing the classic understanding of the Christian Inner tradition (I first encountered this teaching in the Gurdjieff Work), Sardello points out that most of us use the terms “feeling” and “emotion” interchangeably, as if they are synonyms. They are not. Emotion is technically “stuck” feeling, feeling bound to a fixed point of view or fixed reference point. “We are not free in our emotional life,” he points out, since emotion always “occurs quite automatically as a reaction to something that happens to us.”17 It would correspond to what Helminski calls “the heart in service to the reactive ego-self.”
Beyond this limited sphere opens up a vast reservoir of feelingness. Here the currents run hard and strong, always tinged with a kind of multivalence in which the hard-and-fast boundaries distinguishing one emotion from another begin to blend together. Happiness is tinged with sadness, grief touches at its bottomless depths the mysterious upwelling of comfort, loneliness is suffused with intimacy, and the deep ache of yearning for the absent beloved becomes the paradoxical sacrament of presence. “For beauty is only the beginning of a terror we can just scarcely bear,” observes Rilke, “and the reason we adore it so is that it serenely disdains to destroy us.”18
Such is the sensation of the heart beginning to swim in those deeper waters, awakening to its birthright as an organ of spiritual perception. And it would stand to reason, of course, that the experience is feeling-ful because that is the heart’s modus operandi; it gains information by entering the inside of things and coming into resonance with them. But this is feeling of an entirely different order, no longer affixed to a personal self-center, but flowing in holographic union with that which can always and only flow, the great dynamism of love. “Feeling as a form of knowing”19 becomes the pathway of this other mode of perceptivity, more intense, but strangely familiar and effortless.
The great wager around which the Western Inner tradition has encamped is that as one is able to release the heart from its enslavement to the passions, this other heart emerges: this “organ of contemplation,” of luminous sight and compassionate action. For what one “sees” and entrains with is none other than this higher order of divine coherence and compassion, which can be verified as objectively real, but becomes accessible only when the heart is able to rise to this highest level and assume its cosmically appointed function. Then grace upon grace flows through this vibrating reed and on out into a transfigured world: transfigured by the very grace of being bathed in this undivided light.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” In this one sentence, the whole of the teaching is conveyed. What remains is for us to come to a greater understanding of how this purification is actually accomplished: a critical issue on which Christian tradition is by no means unanimous. This will be the subject of our next chapter. ♦
1 Kabir Helminski, Living Presence: A Sufi Guide to Mindfulness and the Essential Self (New York: Tarcher/Perigree Books, 1992), 157.
2 Ibid., 158.
3 Sidney H. Griffith, “Merton, Massignon, and the Challenge of Islam,” in Rob Barker and Gray Henry, eds., Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), 65.
4 For extensive bibliographical information on this work, see “A Treatise on the Heart,” trans. Nicholas Heer, (ibid., 79–88).
5 E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, eds., The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 194.
6 Ibid., 190.
7 Robert Sardello, Silence: The Mystery of Wholeness (Benson, NC: Goldenstone Press, 2006), 82.
9 Ibid., 86.
10 No wonder the embodied aspect of heart spirituality is so important! For if Sardello is right here (and my own work confirms that he is), then the stunning conclusion is that there is no lack. That primordial hunger for intimacy and belonging we so frantically project onto others in our attempt to find fulfillment is fulfilled already, there in the “infinity of love” already residing holographically in our own hearts, once we have truly learned to attune to its frequency and trust that with which it reverberates. In this sense, our physical heart is the quintessential “treasure buried in the field.”
11 Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Biology of Transcendence:A Blueprint of the Human Spirit (Rochester, VT: Park Street Place, 2002).
12 Stephen Harrod Buhner, The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature (Rochester, VT: Bear and Company, 2004).
13 Ibid., 71.
14 Pearce, 64–65.
15 For a particularly clear and forceful discussion of this point, see E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, trans., Unseen Warfare, trans. E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 241–44.
16 Reproduced in Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2004), 136.
17 Sardello, 72.
18 Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, trans. J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1939), 21.
19 Sardello, 72.
From The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault © 2016. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
From our current issue Parabola Volume 42, No. 1, “The Search for Meaning,” Spring 2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.
About the Author
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, teacher, and retreat leader. Among her many books are The Meaning of Mary Magdalene and The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three.
While your eyes are closed, I want to invite you to let your whole body soften. Let your attention sink into your felt experience. You might take a few long breaths. Focusing on the exhale, just to let the whole body settle. And gentle. Noticing the weight of the body sinking into your chair, into the earth. Letting your root soften open to the earth, as much as it can. Letting your belly be fat. Inviting the solar plexus to soften with breath. The heart to soften. The hands. The face. Let every expression just droop off of your face. Just here. Softy. Letting breath travel around your body. Softening as it goes. Softening all around the things that are tight, letting them be here. Letting them float along in our soft pool of being. Little nuggets of tenseness floating in this soup of being. And this is the voice of yin. The voice that invites softening, the voice that invites sinking, the voice that invites receptivity, availability. The voice that calls us to soften and dissolve. Give into gravity.
In that dark privacy of having your eyes closed, I want to invite you to imagine that you are surrounded by the walls of a womb, so this darkness is a fluid inside of a womb and you float there. Nothing you have to do. Held in every direction by warmth, by protection, by space, receptive, love-filled space. And I invite you to imagine that you aren’t formed yet, that you are tiny. A tiny cord of light from your bellybutton to the heart of Holy yin at the center of everything, tracking you, tethering you. As you float in sweet, warm, dark. No harm, no harshness. Nothing to protect from. Nothing to do. And softening open.
When I first put my new baby into a bath in a candlelit room, she unfurled herself in the water. And so that’s my invitation: an unfurling, an uncurling, an unwinding. Like a fern unwinding. Like a flower blooming open, falling open, sinking open, softening. And whatever it is that you are experiencing in response to my words is just perfect. The words are meant to evoke your experience, not for you to have to completely mimic what I’m saying. Because the call to yin, the call to soften, the call to open, the call to melt into the unity of all things will potentially bring up arguments with that. And they are welcome. Fear is welcome. Tightening is welcome. Holding on is welcome. Numbness is welcome. These are all love’s children. All blessedly welcome to float in the same womb of being held.
I would invite you as you float there, to notice your weightlessness. To imagine warmth. To imagine a kind of attentive holding, not a left-alone holding, but an embracing holding. By an intelligent heart that knows you, blesses you. Stands sentry for you while you float and unfurl. Really letting every struggle be given over to this water. Everything you carry, for the moment allowing it to float. And I want to invite you to imagine that every cell in your tiny floating body has its mouth open, its heart open, its arms open, soaking up the ions of love in the fluid. You are in a brine, marinating in a brine of love pickling. Let the aliveness you feel in the flesh of your body be that charged water coming into your cells, blessing you. Just soaked. I invite you to soak. To even let the gentleness in my voice into your cells. Softening, softening, softening, softening, open.
Receiving. Like the ground receives the rain. Soaking. Like the open flower receives the sunlight. Soaking, absorbing, filling. Uncurling your tiny fingers.
Space. Water. Darkness. Dissolving, yielding, softening, gentling. Taking in Nourishment. Protected by this womb that surrounds you from anything that is not utterly nourishing and made just for you. Just for you, the temperature, the weightlessness, the size of the womb, the love that you are soaking in. For you. Tailored to you. So that there’s nothing you have to do, but absorb. And you might consider in your posture as you sit there or lie there to open your hands or tip back your face. Like let the body be as an open cup. And please be so tender, so patient with yourself, whatever experience you’re having. Slowness. Patience. Space. Abiding. Merging.
We lose touch with yin to the extent that our environment doesn’t nourish and feed us in just the right way. When we have to protect against things, when we have to lean out our effort further than what’s easy as young beings to get something that we need. We leave the yin rest. And we learn not to trust yin. When there’s no company to soften open again in our tears, in our trusting, we forget yin and we harden. And we create a kind of rigid strength, shielding ourselves, and pushing ourselves.
Yin is healing, deep, deep healing. The waters of yin, of rest, of death, of gravity, call us down and call us open. To be rocked, to be renewed, to rest. For some of us the closest we get to yin is exhaustion, and we will finally stop, and we will finally soften when we have run the active aspect of ourselves, until we run ourselves into the ground. And if you notice any exhaustion in your body right now, I want to invite you to really tune into it, the feel of heaviness. Let yourself not hold anything up. Let yourself really just float. A core part of what I teach is the restoration of yin, of being, of softening, of sinking to zero, to inactivity, to receptivity. And as much as I can talk about it, to talk to you from it, to talk to you from tenderness, to talk to you from stillness, to talk to you from resting, from dissolution, to me is far more instructive than anything we could read. That you could feel in your body a softening, a mercy, a warm touch of loving company, an invitation out of alienation into a sweet welcoming embrace that needs nothing from you. And that you could be energetically rocked in that.
We need to know that someone has our back, that someone has the door, that someone has the yang aspect covered so that we can soften open. We need to be able to lean into another being’s energy, whether it’s a tree or a human being, and feel that place where we feel weak, feel soft, feel like a flower petal, like a slender waif, to lean into something solid. And I would invite you to feel the walls of this womb solid, solid for you. So that you are not going to be dropped, you are not going to be poked, you are not going to be left, you are not going to be forgotten, but held in such conscious, deep, tender regard. Love it.
There is a sweetness to softening, to tenderizing. A relaxation, this is in a way, the first level of coming out of a grip, coming out of an over-yang position of rigidity and over-activity. And just to ease the system to soften is no small thing in this culture. Sometimes we need help: massage, cranial-sacral, being floated in a hot spring, a cozy bed, a heavy fuzzy cat, someone to hold us, a conscious, sinking our felt experience into every inch of our bodies. Tears soften, shaking the fear out of the body softens. And this act, that is bodily, to soften, can be reflected inside, and the physical act of softening is just a metaphor for the entire apparatus of the human doing to soften open into being. To soften and dissolve in unity, in our mother so to speak. And as we soften, deeper and deeper, I invite you to soften your organs. Invite your organs to soften, your heart, your liver, your stomach, your intestines, your kidneys. Let them all soften. Our body becomes energetically porous. And then the exchange with the energies we are surrounded by can resume. The Holy can find us and soak our bodies in Love. You can even picture each of your organs being rocked in the arms of a Beloved. Your heart rocked and sung to, your belly, to soften out of the grip of fear and harshness into a reflection of Beloved-ness, of preciousness.
We need yang, we need strength, we need the capacity to act and to move. To stand for things. But we need that to grow out of this yin base, the ground of being. So that when yang is gathered up, it’s gathered up like sparkling energies from the roots of a tree, rising from this great ground of being, tiny roots through the whole body collecting Divine energy, so that it might travel up the roots into our bodies and express itself as clear, zeroed action. And I hesitate to even talk much about that because we have so much overdue yin homework. So much softening to do, so much uncurling to do. So much finding the ground, finding safety, finding what’s dependable, finding what’s simple, finding zero. Reclaiming being.
Yin by nature is utterly present. The minute that our attention moves ahead of just here, the body starts to tighten. Something starts to assert itself and tighten. And so in this softening, in this call to return here, soft, open, I am calling you to yin. I am calling you to dissolve in this amniotic fluid of the Beloved that you are surrounded by. To give yourself back, to return whatever you have built, whatever you think you are, whatever has formed, to the dissolving sweetness of this darkness.
Some of you have heard this story and some of you have not. It’s a yin dream that I had, and it was clearly for all of us. I was in the basement of, some of you know Tecumseh, in the dream I was in the basement of her house where I have given some events. I was in a room that was black, pitch black. And I was meditating so to speak. I was dissolved in this blackness. I was sitting in stillness with my eyes open just dissolved in this luminous beautiful darkness, floating, no thought to any action, just dissolved and blissful. And I heard Tecumseh up on the landing. There was a landing halfway up to the upstairs in this dream, and she was there with a professor and his wife, who were very dear to her. They were old and wise, very dear to her. And my love for her had me leave the darkness to meet these people. She wanted me to meet these people and so I started to ascend the stairs, my eyes still focused as though in the dark. And so I couldn’t see, all I could see was darkness. My pupils were so dilated and I was still looking into that beautiful dark as I walked.
And as I walked up the stairs I thought, “Well, surely my eyes will become accustomed to the light, so that when I meet them, there is someone-ness here to meet them. I will be able to see them. I will have enough of an active principle to meet them.” But as I went up the stairs, my pupils didn’t narrow. They stayed absolutely widely dilated. I stayed absolutely blind, just looking into the darkness. Utterly receptive. Not even the yang of a personhood, not even the yang of sight. I couldn’t see outward. Just this huge, my eyes were like a huge threshold into the dark, and this is how I met these people at the landing. I met them, I held their hands. They could look into me. I was darkness, I could not look out. I was looking into darkness.
And there was a sense in the dream, and it is my experience that, it’s time for this level of receptivity, of blissful dissolution in the dark Beloved. It is time for it to re-enter from the basement up to the landing where the front door is, to meet people as no one, as nothing, as darkness, as utter receptivity.
And the only thing that helps us to feel strong enough, protected enough, safe enough to show ourselves in this yin, is the Holy, is the embodiment of the Holy, is the reclaiming of Holy ground, of Holy breath, of Holy love infiltrating every cell of the body, to return to the places that are crying out in us, and to bring the Holy’s tenderness there. Whether we borrow another being or a tree to seek out every tight fist that lives inside of us and let it feel ground and let it feel warmth and let it feel a regard that lets it know it’s precious, it’s safe, it’s wanted, it’s lovely, it’s alright. It’s alright to come out.
And yin has this beautiful capacity to tailor itself to the needs of a particular moment, a particular creature in a particular moment. And so this is the beauty of the healing property of yin is that it will leave nothing behind. It will require nothing to leap over or out of its developmental cocoon or womb until it’s fully formed and drops out on its own accord. This deep, deep, organic wisdom is the domain of yin. So that everything is seen without judgment, whether it’s just born on wobbly legs, learning and loud, and extra awkward in its teenagerhood, fully formed, aging, rotting, falling to the ground, or utterly still as a seed.
Yin and yang are meant to be dancing, like they are in that beautiful Asian image of the black Yin and the white Yang, with an eye of each other’s color, spinning. But first yin. First Yin. When a being is born, it’s first yin. For nine months, it rests in dark liquid, resting, resting, being. Not a single active thing required of it. First yin. And for any of the places that we want to reclaim our strength or our capacities, first yin. We fall to the ground, we find our ground there, our no-one-ness there. We’re rocked and dissolved, and allowed simply to be. So that things can be birthed through us and strengthened through us.
Yin absolutely needs her partner yang in a human being. Because we have not had a balance or been held in a balance, our beautiful receptivity feels like something that we can’t show. And instead of an active, empowered, charged, alive and nourished receptivity, instead we have passivity or we have exhaustion. And then instead of a beautiful strength that serves this deep knowing and this deep being and this deep surrender and connectedness, we have fear-based action, we have action that preempts this beautiful organic flow of things. And we have a rigidity inside of our bodies in the place of strength. I want to invite you as you soften here to keep sinking and if you notice any place that’s numb, any place that’s held tightly, I want to invite you to surround it with an imaginary womb. Surround it with tender, dark, holding embrace. Let it float there as it is. No harm.
I had a meeting today with someone who wants me to take on a certain role in relation to a conference and co-facilitate with someone who I don’t know, who’s a man. I am percolating on this invitation. But in speaking what rose for me there, there was this beautiful exposition about how yin requires protection and authority granted to her for her gifts to be given. And part of the maturing of yin, because at first yin is something that has no words, it’s something that we are barely aware of because in our culture it’s largely, we’re largely encouraged away from it and so we can have gut feelings, we can hear someone else speak something and say, “Yes, that’s it!” But when yin is newborn or young, it doesn’t have words yet. And this way that words come to yin and it starts to become conscious and able to be expressed, is a really vital part of stepping into an integrated being here.
And in most situations, I notice in the yin aspect of my role, a container is set. A yang container is set for the yin to appear, and the yin to open, and the yin to download its energy from a kind of open portal to the whole. So if you could imagine the pupil of an eye or the heart of a flower opening, opening, opening, being this utter soft portal and sweetness pouring through there. That power, it’s a raw power, the raw power of life. It’s the raw power of love. It’s deeply Transformational. It’s deeply challenging for beings who are frightened of the gap. If it is not carried with a kind of an awareness and a respect and a wisdom, imbalances, harm, disruptions can occur. To open the high beams in an environment where that hasn’t been invited, either explicitly or energetically, is potentially to drop a catalyst into an unpredictable wilderness. So I notice that the way that yin moves here is that it has a certain requirement of containment in order to even bother. And many of you can see the various aspects of containment that are involved in this work. The way that we quiet ourselves at the beginning of things, the way that there’s a guided meditation to invite people to soften. The way that these things aren’t drop-in, and they aren’t open to anyone, and they have a certain start time —this is all to create a cup within which yin can be glorified for all of us, to come through all of us as portals.
And so it was very sweet to be of this age…when I was 25, I didn’t really know what yin was. When I was 35 I had some ideas. In my younger life, I might not have been able to say, “If you would like me to show up in this kind of role, I need to know that I have the authority, the respect, the support, to lead from the heart of softness.” Because the heart of softness does not compete with loud things. It does not argue with arguments. It simply will fold up its circus tent and go where it’s invited. And this is why the heart of spirituality is a heart of surrendering, not a heart of accomplishing. That in its essence, being is yin.
(Pause.) It wanted me to pause for itself there so it could assert its yin-ness. You see if we don’t have a bit of awareness about the beauty of yin, we will miss the way that it peeks out of the cave and spills its light. If we are looking for objects, if we are looking for discrete things, for actions, for content, for stuff, for reference points, we will miss the energetic, quiet revealing of yin in a child’s face, in a loved one who is about to tell us something vulnerable. In a quiet moment.
I remember my daughter when she was young, her most wise utterances would be preceded by a kind of a yin silence. You could feel the energy of it. She got very quiet, she got very sparkly and deep in her eyes, and there would be this quiet. Like you would want to whisper. You would know that church was starting. And then she would say something from that depth, as though it was just born from the depths. And the earth needs beings who can feel, see, know, and embody yin, being, the vibration of things, the sea of things. Even before things are born they arrive as energies. And when we are softened open, we can feel these energies and we can step into them, step away from them, direct them, redirect them for the good of the whole.
The whole way that I teach, I should say the whole way that I speak because there are yang aspects to this teaching. But the whole way that I speak, that I deliver through this portal of my being something for us, is yin. I have no preconceived thought. I give everything that I am to the dissolving waters of the moment, allow it to reclaim every cell of this body. Turn it into a soft, open, downloading station and if it has nothing for me, if it has no words, so be it, no words. If it has outrageous words, so be it, outrageous words. If it takes an hour to give birth to the beauty that it has prepared, so be it. And what’s beautiful is that in between the bits of content and actually sewn throughout, but in between when there is a pause, the dark looks out. The dark invites you into your own depth. The dark invites the things that are scared of the dark to talk to it, to cry to it, to be seen, and embraced and welcomed back.
I would invite you, if you like, to gaze at me with your eyes looking into my eyes. But I want to invite you to have your felt experience be paramount so that your eyes are soft and relaxed and your attention is buried in your felt experience. What happens then is that it invites the eyes to be receptive, to receive. So you can feel your breath, your weight, the vibration in the body. And let the eyes be soft, let them not be focused hard, but just kind of receiving. Imagine the world falling into your eyes, falling into your heart, and let my words fall into your heart. Let this energy fall into you. This way we meet each other as being, as emissaries, wide, open portals of the Beloved’s love. This is to me the most beautiful thing about yin. The dark, yielding openness charged with love. Anything that’s brought before it is blessed. And you can play with grounding, feeling weight, feeling your feet on the floor, opening your root. Softening the body. It’s sweet here because I’m just on a screen, and so it’s all the more safe. For just simply being in the privacy of your own nest there where you are, letting the body soften and if it’s numb or if it’s tight, just bring some womb to it. Soften all around it. Let it be here. We have been terrorized, many of us have been brutalized and terrorized in this softest of places. Softening. Being here together. No harm. Warmth. Embrace. Invitation. Goodness. Love. Quiet.
What if our planet, and the planets of our solar system, and all of the stars and the planets that we can see, are held in a dark womb? I would invite you again to picture every cell in your body like a mouth or an open hand, drinking, drinking the quiet, drinking the tenderness. And I would invite you to use my eyes with anything in you that has forgotten that it’s precious. Let it look at me. Let it look at me in the safety of your own nest. Let it show itself with only tenderness to greet it. And feel free if you are just rocking the dark yin right now to just join me here. That we would be a single field of invitation and embrace to whatever has hidden, whatever has been banished. Among us and among anyone who is called to utilize this energy, this energy of loving emptiness to reveal itself, welcome. Welcome to the dark, deep, womb heart of the Beloved: travelers, aliens, derelicts, homeless, desperate, in pain, terrified, agonized, stalked, raw, helpless.
From the heart of the universe, there, there, precious children. We are all her children.
We speak of a conscious god, one with feelings like sorrow, anger, and joy. We speak of a just god, one who demands moral behavior and forgives moral breaches, one who speaks and gets His way. But is that true? Is there really a god like that or do we simply want that to be true?
Is there for instance, a god who has established justice, one who balances the cosmic scales of justice? Let me quote scripture to answer that one. Qoheleth says, “In my own vaporous life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evil doing” [Ecclesiastes 7:15].
Is there a god with consciousness, one who has feelings like anger, sorrow, and joy? We are talking about the creator of the universe, and who knows, maybe multiple universes. We are talking about the driving force that has guided creation’s evolutionary story from hydrogen atoms to Shakespeare. Is this god a Father, Judge, or Healer? Of course not. I believe I have support from the mother’s milk of reformed theology, the Westminster Confession of Faith. “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward . . . ,” [Book of Confessions: 6.037]. The starting point of theology is necessarily a god that stretches beyond human categories and concepts.
Why is that important now, in this day and age? It is important, because an anthropomorphic god inevitably disappoints. There is enough disease, war, injustice and loneliness in the world to warrant such a claim. To suggest that such a god is ontologically real is a lie, one that violates the second commandment to boot. Let’s face it, we desire a god who is just and so we project that god onto our imagination. We desire a god who forgives, creates peace and heals and so we project such a god onto our imagination. This god, as Feuerbach so famously said is, “humanity writ large across the cosmos.” The scriptures will have none of it. “What is your name?” Moses asked. Is it father, mother, warrior, judge, Lord, peacemaker, or perhaps even non-dual presence? No, “I AM, I will be what I will be, I have caused what I have caused and I will cause to be what I cause to be.” We cannot know God in God’s being.
Such is the false hope garnered from an anthropomorphic god and yet here I stand, a believer, one who stakes his life on a God who “by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, is pleased to [offer some fruition of God’s self,] by way of covenant” [Book of Confessions: 6.037]. God, the God who for 13.7 billion years has guided creation’s evolutionary story, makes God’s self known through the very projections that obscure the being of God. How do I know? I don’t. I believe and bear witness to the reality that, in the living of a life of faith, the truth of that statement becomes crystal clear.
Living such a life of faith, does not begin with an intellectual assent to ideas and constructs which are but a distorted reflection of what is real. Rather it involves a commitment to critically engage what is real . . . to you.
And for the modern mind that cannot begin with the ancient picture of a Lord up in a place called heaven from where He rules the cosmos according to His inscrutable purpose; it cannot begin with a God who has His Son killed because the magical life force imbued in blood must be released to correct a moral imbalance; it cannot begin with a God who has the kind of control over the process of creation that allows or disallows suffering and evil to exist. The cognitive dissonance between that view of God and our modern understanding of creation’s evolutionary process makes we Christians sound ridiculous when we talk about what we know to be real.
It is a travesty to do so when a life of faith, formed by the 4000 year old conversation of Scripture is pointing us even now, towards an astonishingly beautiful truth permeating creation. Without trying to lay hold of an exclusive claim on truth we can tell the world that we have come to know God who moves from death to new life. Cross and resurrection are realities whether or not the physical resurrection happened. We can tell of a God we have come to know in three ways.
I have come to know God in the third person. For when I stare into the night sky, or watch my surrogate grandson trying to walk, the immensity and complexity of this bewildering universe. looms before me and I begin to see Spirit shimmering behind and within it. I see a river of grace with all its eddies and currents, turmoil and twists carrying us into the future.
As I contemplate this extraordinary beauty I begin to encounter that shimmer as “other,” and a mystical, I-Thou, second person relationship begins to emerge. In that “relationship” I come to know something of God’s character; I come to know that I am an expression of the love of God, an integral part of God’s creative purpose. In that sense I can speak of God metaphorically as having human like emotions and motivations. But we can never let those metaphors domesticate and obscure the reality that stretches beyond human apprehension.
Then there are those moments, moments I myself have barely glimpsed, when we have an experiential dawning, when we know that God has “brought all things together in perfect harmony” and we glimpse God in first person. I AM.
I am so very tired of a church that hangs onto its mythic , anthropomorphic language of God so tightly, a church so myopically focused on how truth was expressed that we fail to call people into covenant relationship with the creative love now driving creation forward.
Change is on the horizon – seismic change. It is being met by fear; the resulting violence threatens to overtake us. Most of us are asleep, anesthetized with everything from TV to Bud Light. Growth is required of us at a time when more and more of us are turning our collective back on the presence of God. And why? Because when we say the word “God” people think of that anthropomorphic god who inevitably lets us down.
We have one thing to offer and that is our belief that a life of faith, one that engages what is real, enables us to live into the future, knowing that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God. We can no longer afford to obscure that message with fairy tales.