Is God hidden? A letter to a friend

Andromeda galaxy
A reader in the UK sent me an email recently asking among other things “why God keeps himself hidden from the world?”

These were my thoughts in response:

We often think of God as a “Person,” or Supreme Being, separate from Creation, and following the logic of what “personhood” seems to convey, we might assume God has motives, will, desires, emotions, can change his mind, and can even be so temperamental as to destroy the world when really pissed off, as in the Flood story.

I have come to believe that God’s personhood, what I call “the personal metaphor,” is just that, a metaphor. Needless to say, it is used often in both testaments, and Jesus himself used it fairly consistently in referring to God. But it’s important to note that many other metaphors are used in the Bible. God is a fire, a spirit, a dove, a wind, a rock, light, and love itself. And whenever Jesus referred to the God as a person, he cast that person as “Father,” certainly to bring forth God’s benevolence.

The very word “persons” invites misunderstanding of Trinitarian doctrine. The Latin word personae could mean the characters in a play (the dramatis personae in theater programs), or even the masks the characters wore! God wearing three masks.

Eastern Orthodoxy developed the idea of the essence of God as being distinct from the energies of God, and maintains that the essence of God is beyond “beyond,” while God is known through his energies, and that we may unite with his energies in theosis.

Energy is force, and actually, I find “the Force” a more useful metaphor for God now. Not in every way, of course. I don’t believe that the Force is generated by living things and obeys commands, like in Star Wars, but I do believe that thinking of God as non-personal, and Force-like helps me.

For instance, if I were to ask why does gravity keep itself hidden, you would probably say it doesn’t, it’s just there, wherever there’s mass, there’s gravitation. We just need to notice how things act to notice its actions.

In a similar way, I don’t believe that God intentionally keeps teachings hidden, or himself hidden, (I’ll make a leap now and say Itself) It is everywhere, in all things, and discovering God is a matter of seeing things with spiritual eyes, of “loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul,” and “loving your neighbor as yourself.”

When we can do those things as Jesus said, we can see everyone as the child of God, and live in the kingdom of heaven, which is within us.

St. Hildegard of Bingen called God Haecceitas which means “This-ness,” and Meister Eckhart called God “Is-ness.” This titles are far beyond “personhood” as we think of it. This is a Force beyond forces. This is what creates and holds the Universe together, every Planck-instant of every second, everywhere that is. It is Everything, and beyond Everything, but more than anything else for our purposes, It is Love.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis.

Although it’s been a long time since I’ve been active in the Church, I am, and will always be, a fervent admirer of the “alter Christus,” St. Francis of Assisi.

“Pope Francis” almost sounds like an oxymoron … St. Francis abhorred pomp, ceremony, and virtually everything distracting him from his chosen path of poverty—real poverty—to find the Lord in “perfect joy.” But the “pope” part is not what this new Francis chose. It’s merely an affectionate customary title, not even a spiritual one, which all Bishops of Rome immediately become known by. Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, didn’t choose “Pope.” He chose the name “Francis.”

That’s an impressive choice. And a news release from the Vatican clarifies that Francis chose his name not for Francis Xavier, or any other Francis, but for the nature mystic of Assisi. Francis, in this age of cellphones and Facebook, of scandals, and outrage, of global warming and multi-national corporate greed.

I have no illusions that this Francis will be the saint of Assisi on the papal throne. He has his own story, his own strengths, his own faults. He will follow God according to his path, and I according to mine. But there is something about hearing “Pope Francis” that inspires me. And more than that, realizing that he chose the name Francis, gives me hope.

God bless you, Papa Francis. May you inspire the world and lead the Church in love and wisdom. May you be well and strong. May you be guided well and listen true. May you be an instrument of His peace.

Thomas Merton Square

The Louisville Metro Council last month named the intersection of 4th and Muhommad Ali Blvd. “Thomas Merton Square,” in honor of Fr. Thomas Merton’s epiphany.  To my knowledge, this is the only occasion of any government recognizing an event related to awakening. The occasion was reported in the Lousville Courier-Journal, .with some excellent writing that actually understood Merton and the meaning of his experience.

As Carl McColman at The Website of Unknowing observed: “It’s rather neat to see a landmark named in honor of a mystical experience!” I’ll say! And I’ve never seen a secular newspaper report so well the meaning of a mystical experience. The times, they are a-changin’! Thanks, Carl, for letting us  know about this wonderful news!

Merry Subversion!

I’m having a subversive Christmas. I’m thinking about the subversiveness of the Christmas story.

Why subversive?

Spirituality is by its nature subversive… it sees significance and meaning beyond the material… that something is going on behind the "seen". Awakening (what I usually call mysticism) is even more subversive; it sees the interior (subversive!) way as of primary importance for the individual for experience God. The way of peaceful warriors is more subversive still: for us, it’s a challenge of (subversively!) transforming the world by allowing ourselves to be transformed.

Subversion, subversion, subversion! The arrival of the Teacher was announced to a few. Most simply weren’t interested. The presence of living Teachers today is of interest only to a few: most could care less. Yet the Teaching persists, and it’s so subversive, you can’t even grasp it with your mind. That which you think you know is the first thing that must be subverted for the seed to take root.

Nine months before this subversive birth in a smelly barn away from the eyes of the world, something else subversive happened. A messenger (angelos) privately, (subversively!) told Mary that she would become pregnant when "holy breath" (pneuma hagion) and "the power of the Highest" (dunamis hupistou) overshadowed her. (Lk. 1:26-36)

Mary immediately understood the subversive direction of this future birth:

He has shown the power of his arm,
He has routed the proud of heart.
He has pulled down princes from their thrones
and exalted the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things,
the rich sent empty away… (Lk 1. 51-53)

Just try saying that at a presidential inauguration, and see how long to takes the Secret Service to react! It’s subversive, and it’s not what the powers of this world want to hear, period.

So what will be conceived in you, when holy breath fills you, and your delusions are overshadowed by the Highest power? What or who will you give birth to?

Mysticism and Religion

To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.’… But widom is proved right by her actions.

There’s an interesting discussion at Zoecarnate which seems to me a microcosm of the differences between the religious and the mystical approaches. It also shows what I think are some of the challenges that “Emergent” faces in as far as it wishes to incorporate mystical spirituality into the Church.

Mystics, in general, have an uncomfortable time of it in churches when their spiritual views become known. This is because the function of a church (or synagogue, mosque, or temple) has a goal that is fundamentally different from that which the mystic has. The goal of the religious congregation is to help a group of people come to be in a certain shared level of  the knowledge of God, and aspire for continued spiritual growth.

The goal of the mystic, however, is to know God as directly and totally as possible—to be experientially transformed into what his or her true nature actually is in essence—the image of God.

At first, it might seem like these goals reinforce each other, but in practice, they are in almost constant conflict. When the mystic begins moving beyond the religious preoccupations of sin, redemption, entry-level theology, and personal morality, he is moving away from that shared level and intending to go beyond it. This creates conflict, because the one who is seeking the common level is also strongly motivated to do so, from remembering “where he was” before he came to care about loving God, to being taught that deception runs rampant in the world, and that reliance upon the Church, Scripture, and the reinforcement of fellow believers is essential to not lose his way, and this is really is true for most on the religious path.

However, in most schools of Christianity, mysticism and religion have some common meeting points. The Catholic sacraments are meant to be mystical encounters of the soul with Christ. The “born-again” experience is the mystical renewal of the soul in Christ. The spiritual gifts (such as speaking in tongues in Charismatic and Pentecostal churches) is a mystical experience of the Spirit dwelling within.  But after being born again, or receiving the Baptism of the Spirit, or partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, the guidance largely comes down to reinforcement, i.e., “keep on doing and believing the same stuff, keep on trying to improve, and see you in heaven.”

Reinforcement easily becomes an end in itself. In the fifth century, Nestorius objected to a devotional title for Mary as “Mother of God” (Theotokos) and said that Mary should be called “Mother of Christ” instead, since God existed before all. However, for the majority in the Orthodox-Catholic church, Theotokos served as reinforcement for Jesus’ divinity, which in turn reinforced the value of his death and resurrection, and so on. And those who did not want to reinforce it (for whatever reason) were suspected of possibly being against it.

Too often, the reinforcers become enforcers, and as Jesus knew from experience, the “children in the marketplace” lash out against those on the path of the wisdom teachers. It’s as though the first-graders want to control the curricula in the university.

Contemporary Christian mystics also meet the spirit of religious reinforcement. “What? you’re not reading the Bible every day? Don’t you know that it’s the only trustworthy authority?” or,  “you didn’t affirm the blood sacrifice of Jesus in your last post. Don’t you believe that He’s the only way?”

With the best of intentions, these folks are cornering their mystical sibs with the trap of “begging the question.” The mystic who is discovering that life in God is not about “belief” cannot give simple yes or no answers if he cares both about meeting his questioners’ concerns where they are, and being true to his own conscience. Rather, it takes either: (1) lengthy explanations, which will probably be misunderstood or cut short before he can make his point, or (2) indirect answers, such as parables, analogies, and so forth, which are also usually misunderstood!

For millennia, religion has been the traditional “entry point” to the mystical (although mysticism can certainly be addressed in non-religious ways, as in the teaching of Eckhart Tolle, for instance.)  But even though mystics usually come from, and understand the religious path, non-mystics cannot understand the mystical path. So conflict is unavoidable when those on the religious path aren’t taught that there is another, interior approach. Historically, mysticism has thrived when it’s had a place of its own, removed from the “weaker brethren”, such as the convents and monasteries. But the desperate needs of today’s world force modern mystics to be in the world, the marketplace, and increasingly, even in those churches that have little history or understanding of mysticism.

May those who go to Jesus and those who go through him, live in peace together!

Dear Madeleine

Madeleine L’Engle has passed on. Although really the most appropriate thing to say would be “Congrats!”, I do find my eyes getting a bit moist thinking about it. Why? Well, that’s a long story, but I’ve got plenty of time.

Let’s wrinkle back in time to about nine years ago. I was still a new convert to Catholicism and was just beginning to really deliberately follow a Christian mystical path. A friend of mine whom I hadn’t spoken with for a long time asked me to think what was the one thing that got me onto this path. There were so many factors affecting me in the few years before that—discovering Jesus’ call for social justice, reading The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, and having had a crash-and-burn experience with some distorted beliefs. I answered that there wasn’t any one thing, but I continued to think about it for the next few days. Yeah, it was true that there wasn’t any ONE thing, but many, but there was one author who really cleared the way for me to be more receptive to everything that I would later encounter. Her name was Madeleine L’Engle.

To understand that, let’s wrinkle further back in time to around 1972 or so. There’s this fifth-grade kid—let’s call him—well, “Jon.” Jon’s considered a bright lad and shows a bit of creativity—likes to draw, loves to read—but he seems a bit one-sided; all of the books he checks out from the library are about animals, science or geography. One day, much to Jon’s chagrin, his teacher forces him to read a fiction book. He protests that he doesn’t want to, but she insists. Later, at home, he reads “It was a dark and stormy night…” and soon encounters worlds in A Wrinkle in Time which he couldn’t have dreamed of otherwise.

Over the years, many things happened to Jon, but one thing Jon doesn’t lose is his imagination. As well as becoming a born-again Christian, he becomes an avid science-fiction reader, and always has a conviction that there’s more to life than what meets the eye… He even comes across a couple of books that suggest that science and spirit aren’t entirely separate things (The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics), and later, he finds a book that truly ignites his soul, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

To his delight, this was by her, the woman who wrote A Wrinkle in Time so long ago. In it, she explained to Jon what it was like being a Christian who couldn’t accept the limitations on love that the Church so often placed, nor its frequent distrust of the imagination,   of science, and changing understandings of reality. She described a kind of faith going back centuries (she specifically mentioned the Cappadocian Fathers), a kind of faith that amazed Jon for he had never heard of it before, a kind of faith that he would later call “Christian mysticism.”

(Wrinkle forward)
No, there wasn’t one thing. And there were many, many other authors who influenced me besides this kindly gray-haired lady who seemed to breathe out books like she breathed in God, who even made titles that were poetry and initiations in contemplation: A Circle of Quiet, A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A House like a Lotus, The Young Unicorns. Yes, many others, but I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not encountered L’Engle’s soulscapes in the forms I did at the times I did. God has his ways, but I’m sure it would have been quite different. Thanks largely to Madeleine, I enjoy science-fiction and fantasy not as mere escapes, but as expressions of truth where it’s not quite the same thing as fact.


Dear Madeleine,

Congratulations on your new home. I hope you really enjoy it, and you deserve some time off. But don’t get too cozy there. C’mon back soon and give us some more. We need you.




Mysticism and sexuality

I want to thank everyone who commented on my last post. I also want to clarify and dig deeper into part of the huge area I addressed in it. What I was really wondering when I asked “why is it so often the renunciates who are the one who elucidate sacred sexuality,” I didn’t mean simply sexuality in general, which comes with strong conditions attached to it in virtually ALL cultures, but the tantric, spiritual aspect of sexuality; sexuality as a reflection of the union of the soul with the divine. Why is it celibate Buddhist monks who are the ones who present the yab-yum with the Buddha and his consort? Why is it St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa who present us with the erotic images of the soul in passionate union with God?

There certainly are exceptions: the Sufi poets, married Indian gurus, etc. But I’ve never heard a Christian layperson say anything like, “what you are doing is expressing the passionate giving of God pouring his love into the world. You are being God for each other, the soul for each other.” However, the mystical meaning of sexuality is quite often, in East and West, presented most strongly by renunciates.

A couple of comments suggested that it was double-speak or sexual frustration on the part of the celibates. I think there’s something deeper at work. As I said before, desire is tricky… I think that some degree of spiritual growth is necessary for sex to be even be able to be seen as something essentially giving. The desire to “get” permeates sex: Get some, get laid, get off. I think it takes some degree of taming the “getting” engine of the ego, before sexuality can be seen as spiritual activity… one certainly doesn’t have to be a celibate to do so, but the monastic traditions, East and West, were created largely for that purpose. Now, things are beginning to change a bit… millions of laypeople are discovering mysticism within their faith, and sacred sexuality is beginning to be addressed. You might hear of Christian tantra sooner than you’d think.


Ah, so I got your attention! Yesterday, I wrote my first poem in Esperanto… unfortunately, I neglected to save it on my computer, and when my machine did one of its random reboots, it was lost and I haven’t been able to recover it. However, I wasn’t going to post it, anyway. It was, ahem, a very tantric sort of prayer, very personal, and let’s just say it didn’t hold anything back!

It was born of a powerful impression I had upon awakening, of the union of sexuality and spirituality. I sat in meditation, and while I just focussed on my breathing, the poem, in images and words, impressed itself upon me. It wasn’t marked by really any particularly strong feelings, despite some extremely passionate imagery. Horniness was the metaphor, not the message or the vehicle. (Well, a little bit of the vehicle, but not as much as you’d think.)

Sex is not only the ultimate physically unifying action, it’s also a powerful image of unification. That seems to be where my poem was coming from, the awareness that God/man, heaven/earth, Unmanifest/manifestation, are not separate, not-two, but one, no matter how it appears in this wonderful world of phenomena and differentiation.

Some questions… Did the poem come to me in Esperanto because the relative unfamiliarity of the words in that language gave me more freedom to receive them afresh… getting past decades of hearing them as “bad” words in English? Was my determination beforehand not to post the poem a tacit acknowledgment of a taboo? What is the taboo, and why is it there?

Sexuality and spirituality are considered so distinct, if not opposed, in Western religion, that it’s difficult to imagine them seriously being addressed at once. And Western religion is virtually devoid of images of sacred sexuality, something that I almost don’t notice, until I consider the yab-yum icon of the Buddha simultaneously in mediation and coitus, or the Hindu shivalingam portraying the meeting of God’s feminine and masculine qualities, graphically portrayed as yoni and lingam.

It’s as if in Western religion, the only icon of sacred sex is the hidden icon of man and wife behind closed doors, not to be seen as a whole by anyone but God alone. And even there, the spiritual symbolism is almost never touched upon, despite St. Paul’s teaching that we are the body of Christ, and that God desires for us to be united with him.

Yet to mystics, it occasionally breaks through here and there when allowed, most often in the form of poetry. The Song of Songs is eight chapters of ecstatic holy erotica, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard a sermon on it that didn’t bury it under ridiculous layers of symbolism.

The Spanish mystics, Sts. Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, bring it forth in some of their mystical writings as well. The sculptor Bernini showed that he understood the relationship of Spirit and passion in his wonderful portrayal of “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” wherein a key mystical experience of hers is given an undeniably erotic, though modest, treatment.

But the Spanish mystics were talking about spiritual experiences, not sexual ones. What is the place of sex in spirituality? Why have so many mystics for thousands of years, been renunciates? Why is it so often the renunciates who are the ones who elucidate sacred sexuality?

I suspect the reason lies in the tricky nature of desire. Even love is constantly confused with the desire for receiving, and sex is even more prone to seek its own fulfillment. As there is a true love that expects nothing in return, but purely exists to give, there must be a place in sex where you exist solely to give yourself away. In that place, there is nothing that is not God.

In the past, gods demanded blood and bodies. Now, Christ has given his body and blood completely, and you are that.

There. I said it; now let me have it!

Punctuate this.

Add the missing punctuation to Jesus’ saying:

take heed that no one deceives you for many shall come in my name saying I am the Christ and will deceive many

If you’re like most people familiar with the verse, you probably punctuated it in the way that’s been traditional in most translations of Matt. 24: 4b-5, something like:

Take heed that no one deceives you, for many shall come in my name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and will deceive many.

However, of course, the original Greek had no punctuation except (occasionally) for the ends of sentences. The King James Version, in fact renders it without quotation marks:

Take heed that no man deceive you.

For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.

Are you beginning to get a different feel for the verse yet? What if the best translation were actually like this:

Take heed that no one deceives you, for many shall come in my name, saying that I am the Christ, and will deceive many.

Could Jesus have meant that the deception would be from future people coming in his name, saying that he is the Christ? I think this might well be what he meant. Consider the traditional translation again. “Many shall come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ.'” There’s a disconnect between the fact that Jesus says the deceivers come in his name, very plainly, and that they’re apparently claiming themselves, not him, to be the Christ. That sounds unlikely for the “many” who come in his name, and not their own.

In contrast, the simple translation “come in my name, saying I am the Christ,” implies that the deception comes from people coming in Jesus’ name, saying that he is the Christ.

What’s wrong with this picture? Maybe nothing. The traditional translation seems right because in Matt. 16, Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ, and Jesus congratulates and blesses him for receiving the grace to see it.

Yet the canonical gospels also record that Jesus’ deepest prayer was that all of his disciples would attain the same unity with God, him, and each other, that he had, (John 17.21-23), and that they would do greater things than he (John 14.12).

The deception is that Jesus is the only one who is to be Christ. Paul went to great pains to show that all of us are to be Christ with him. Every master intends for his disciples to learn what he teaches, and to be able to do what he does. Let’s get on with it. Take away the sins of the world. Forgive. Heal. Love radically. It’s your turn to be the Christ.

The Sweet Pain

In 1998, I began writing a long poem, an epic poem, on the life of Christ. After about six weeks, I stopped writing it (though it didn’t leave me). What I was unprepared for was the intensity of his Presence as I wrote. Writing was prayer, and prayer was writing.

But it was more than that. I wrote about his love, and it was my love, and it burned so strongly that burned me. I truly felt like I couldn’t take it. It was just too much.
I never forgot it, though, and a year after I made my Bodhisattva vow, I also vowed to finish it. But I still couldn’t return to it. It was just too much.

Then over the next few years, all of my conceptions of God were destroyed. Yet, tonight, I find my thoughts again turning to writing this poem. I believe now I can return to it, and now I can relax in the Presence that burned me with his love a few years earlier. I don’t know how I have changed, and why I have that confidence. But it’s time to start writing again. (And a big thank you to Trev, for recommending Pronoia).