Speaking Truth to Power – Zen Style

There is a well-known legend of the meeting between the first Zen Patriarch, Bodhidharma, and the Chinese Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, part of which forms the first case in the koan collection, the Hekiganroku or Blue Cliff Record. Dogen includes the longer version of it in fascicle 31b, Gyoji Ge, of his Shobogenzo but the legend is many centuries older.

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Well known as a benefactor of Buddhist religious foundations, the Emperor begins his conversation with Bodhidharma by enumerating his many achievements in the promotion of Buddhism. He asks, ‘What is the merit of having done all this?’ Bodhidharma says, ‘There is no merit.’ When pressed further by the emperor, he goes on to describe such ‘minor achievements’ of humans as little more than a cause of desire. They’re not real. When asked what, then, is real merit, he says;

When pure wisdom is complete, the essence is empty and serene. Such merit cannot be attained through worldly actions.

The rest of the dialogue goes like this:

Emperor: ‘What is the foremost sacred truth?’

Bodhidharma: ‘Vast emptiness, nothing sacred.’

Emperor: ‘Who is it that faces me?’

Bodhidharma: ‘I don’t know.’

The emperor didn’t understand so Bodhidharma just went on his way.

Human power, at whatever level, desires credit, acclaim, recognition for its successes (‘no merit’, ‘vast emptiness’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). It desires shrines which might serve as a suitable backdrop for staged political moments (‘nothing sacred’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). It desires tame gurus to give affirmation and credibility (‘I don’t know’ is what Bodhidharma offers instead). But Bodhidharma’s responses are not mere nihilism – they are a challenge to the usefulness of the questions themselves. The path to an awakened life is not formed by might, and certainly not by casting aside any who might stand in the way with tear gas and rubber bullets. It is not ‘formed’ at all, but opens up in ‘vast emptiness’ of compassion, the boundless openness that is founded on ‘not-knowing’. ‘Not knowing’ is the wisdom that listens to all sounds, to all voices, in the way that the Bodhisattva Kannon does. ‘Not knowing’ is the refusal to assert dominance, the refusal to possess another in any way.

I wonder what would happen if a certain present-day emperor decided to spend an equal length of time in zazen as he spends on his Twitter feed…

Thomas Merton on Racism

Watching the events of the last few days unfold in the US has led me back to what Merton wrote about similar events in the 1960s. It’s not that Merton had the last or the best word to say on these matters but, as with so much else, his perspective as a contemplative monk and as a writer always offers an angle that doesn’t usually emerge from the less nuanced rhetoric of politicians and partisan commentators.

Thomas Merton, the problem of war and the character of Christian ...

His major contribution on the issues around racial justice in the US comes in his book, Seeds of Destruction with its ‘Letters to a White Liberal’. He begins the book with a persuasive rationale for a contemplative monk like him to be offering thoughts on a matter like race. His argument is that monks may ‘flee the world’ but what they shun is not the flow of history itself but ‘the accumulated inheritance of past untruth and past sin.’ It is not freedom from time but freedom in time that they seek. Monasteries are a kind of laboratory for the examination of human motivation, of delusion and of untruth, a place for clear sight firstly of oneself, but always of oneself as located in history, not in abstract. Furthermore, for a monk not to comment on the affairs of the world is to risk a complicity in its unexamined structures of sin. The monk or, indeed, any religious person, does not claim a privileged place from which to comment on the affairs of the world but the place from which they speak does, nonetheless, offer peculiar insights.

Merton was clear that the issue at hand was not merely one of insufficient tolerance in society but of structural injustice. This is why simply to say ‘I am not a racist’ is never enough. It’s not a question of individual attitudes alone but of deep-rooted economic and material injustices. And it is clear that these injustices benefit many and that is why they persist. Therefore, to overcome them requires not merely ‘acceptance’ but a significant revolution – a fundamental change in circumstances that will bring what may seem like material losses to those who currently benefit from the status quo. It was clear to Merton that racial injustice has a very particular character and a very specific history which has a name: colonialism. The systematic subjugation and exploitation of peoples regarded as inferior to feed the economic prosperity of the coloniser is the structural sin at the heart of racial injustice that continues to plague not only the USA but European nations – not least our own – whose wealth was equally built on such violent foundations. Merton suggested that, in many ways, the response of the political right wing to street protests mirrors this ‘original sin’: protection of property trumps protection of black lives and all in the name of ‘order’.

Merton saw the street demonstrations of his own time as a kairos, a time of opportunity to confront the sin at the heart of injustice, the sin of colonialism driven by greed and materialism, and to listen to the voices that are alone able to offer new ways of being together that overcome injustice, that is the voices of those who have suffered long. As a contemplative, he still has much to teach us about these most vital arts of self-examination and listening.

‘Writing Straight with Crooked Lines’ by Jim Forest – a Review

Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: A Memoir: Amazon.co.uk ...

I don’t often use this space for book reviews but felt that I wanted to give this one a special mention because it touched me deeply. Jim Forest is a writer and peacemaker, a man who, in his own words, ‘has looked for ways to overcome enmity.’ He has worked over the years with many peace organisations, beginning with the Catholic Worker movement, and continues to write and speak about this most crucial Christian calling.

His memoir – note that he doesn’t call it an ‘autobiography’ – takes us vividly through decades of racial discrimination, the Vietnam war, the Cold War with its constant nuclear threat and charts these events with a good journalist’s care for detail. His account of the trial of the Milwaukee Fourteen who were involved in burning draft records and of which he was one, is mesmerising. He writes with a direct and colourful mode of expression and paints a great many superb portraits of the people with he met along the way. Many of these people have a significant place in that bigger story and Jim Forest’s encounters with them are often at a deep and sustained level: Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Dan Berrigan to name only a few (he could also, by the way, easily pick up the phone to Pete Seeger or Joan Baez). But if this sounds like name-dropping, it does not read that way. Indeed, the thing that impresses me most about this non-autobiography is the way in which Jim Forest manages to write an account that is deeply personal and unfailingly honest without being in slightest bit self-obsessed or self-important. It is not confessional and he wisely side-steps things that must remain private. I met Jim a year or two ago and he winced when told me that his next book was to be a memoir. He is a genuinely humble man.

Jim also writes books on the spirituality of the Orthodox church, of which he has been a part for over 30 years. His books on the Beatitudes, icons and confession are accessible yet profound meditations on the spiritual life. I would warmly recommend them. And it is his integration of spirituality and peacemaking that continues to offer a compelling vision of Christian life that is rooted in its tradition without being sectarian, profoundly prayerful and simultaneously outward-looking, humbly open to new things yet well-grounded. This book is an exceedingly well-told story of a rich life. It is also a prophetic reminder of the church’s calling to make peace and to make sure that the peace it offers comes from a peaceful heart. It is an urgent and welcome reminder. Thank you Jim.

Sermon for Pentecost

O Heavenly King, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who are present everywhere, filling all things, Treasury of Good and Giver of Life, come and dwell in us, cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.

Icon-Pentecost

Sometimes Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church, and no one could deny that this day is the one where we see the followers of the risen and ascended Jesus gathered in one place and enthused, empowered, equipped by the Spirit to continue his work of reconciliation and transformation. But the words of the prayer I have just said suggest that Pentecost has a somewhat wider reach than the life of the church in any narrow sense. These words, from an ancient prayer addressed to the Holy Spirit, point to the one who fills all things, who gives all life, who saves, cleanses, abides, is present far beyond the limits of the church in its institutional or communal reality, though all these things must surely be true of the church as well. But the work of the Holy Spirit, the life-giving life of the Holy Spirit, is free, boundless and generous; beyond our grasp and certainly beyond our control.

The traditional icon of this feast of Pentecost, which you can see on your screens now, tells us something about the realm of the Spirit’s operation. At first glance, this image seems to bring the focus very clearly onto the gathered church, seated here in a semi-circle, with the apostles receiving the gift of the Spirit in a tongue of fire. There are some very interesting features of this icon, which may not be obvious on first viewing. First of all, this is not a scene from history. There is no attempt to recreate the scene described in today’s reading from Acts because the 12 here are not just the disciples called by Jesus, but also the 4 Evangelists and Paul. This is not about mere events, but the eternal reality of the Spirit’s inspiration on all who follow in the way of Christ. Another key feature of this image is its central absence. Right in the place where we would expect to see an enthroned figure, the teacher, there is a gap. In the middle of the semi-circle is a space which is unoccupied, or, rather, a space that is occupied by Christ who is no longer present in historical form, but present now in his abundant openness, his cosmic reality filling all things.

But most curious of all is the strange figure right in the centre of the foreground. In a dark space at the heart of the image is an old king, wearied by time, holding out a sheet in which is held 12 scrolls, symbolic of the teaching of the 12 apostles seated around him. He is Cosmos, the world, eager to hear a word of life, desperate to be awakened into new life. He longs to hear words of release, of forgiveness, of healing. He longs to be freed from the darkness that surrounds him, animated by a new spirit of truth and enlightenment. He is the longing of every oppressed, weary, fearful or constrained creature who reaches out towards the light.

So what does the Holy Spirit offer to this Cosmos who holds out his hands and asks for a gift?

At Easter, you may have heard me complaining about the paucity of images of the resurrection in our churches and I’m tempted to complain once more about the relative lack of images of the Holy Spirit. But I don’t need to complain too much this time, because we have a very powerful image of the Spirit right here at the focal point of the church. Above my head are 7 oil lamps which symbolise the gifts of the Spirit of God. Traditionally, these are the gifts enumerated by St Paul in Galatians: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith meekness, self-control. But the gifts of the Spirit are not restricted to this or any other list! God pours out gifts upon the whole earth, to be embraced by any who are open to receiving them, gifts beyond our imagining, beyond our limitations. And if the Pentecost icon depicts weary Cosmos holding out his hands to receive gifts for the better living of this life, what gifts might we seek today? What would bring life to this world of ours at this time?

These gifts may not be spectacular, and they may not be what we would normally think of as charismatic gifts, but they are the most precious gifts of all. Let me suggest just a few. First is the gift of wisdom, Sophia. This is insight into the true nature of things, which is their divine nature. This is the insight that refuses to consign anything to mere utility or, worse, expendability. Wisdom reveals the God-breathed nature of all things and demands that we see worth in everything that breathes.

Next, this wisdom leads to the gift of discernment. This is the subtle gift of knowing how best to decide, how to judge a situation and respond in such a way as to benefit the common good, how to choose a path that is godly, life-giving and generous. It is the gift of a courageous and constant commitment to truthfulness and is much needed in our times.

Then there is the gift of understanding. The gift to see life from other perspectives, to see beyond our prejudices and see that God is present beneath the surface of things, always at the heart of the matter.

Then there is the gift that allows these others to work freely – the gift of inner peace. This is the gift that dispels the clouds from our true heart, our true centre, so that we may see clearly. It is the gift of quiet, of simplicity, of stillness, of inner stability; the gift to go beyond the inner turmoil or anxiety that may prevent us from acting freely and truthfully. This is the spiritual gift that is granted to any who find a way to sit still and listen, just like those disciples seated in the Pentecost icon.

I am not suggesting that these spiritual gifts, so desperately needed by weary Cosmos, are only available from the church. The Spirit is not confined. But they are given to those who follow in the way of Christ and who are willing to receive them, not for their own edification, but for the sake of the world. Wisdom, discernment, understanding, peace – these are not badges of honour but gifts to be received humbly and offered humbly, to be nurtured patiently and exercised thoughtfully. They matter now more than ever, so let us seek them with all our hearts. May God the Holy Spirit grant them to us that we may live lives that are full, free and gracious.

O Heavenly King, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who are present everywhere, filing all things, Treasury of Good and Giver of Life, come and dwell in us, cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.

Send Your Holy Spirit Upon Us

Scottish Episcopalians are generally pretty chuffed to have a proper epiclesis in the Eucharistic anaphora. By ‘proper’, of course, we mean that it makes it clear that the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is the work of the Spirit, that the Spirit is also invoked upon the people and that the prayer of invocation is placed after the anamnesis and oblation rather than before the words of institution as in most Western rites. This means that the implied theology of our Eucharistic rites is closer to Orthodox than Western Catholic emphases, though I don’t think the gulf is as wide as we might imagine post-liturgical movement.

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What is distinctive, though, is that our more recent Liturgy (1982) does not necessarily see the work of the Spirit upon those for whom he is invoked as being dependent on the reception of the consecrated elements in the way that our earlier liturgies may have implied. At the very least, these earlier forms focussed on the effects of God’s Spirit on those who receive. In the ’82 rite, the Spirit ‘kindles us’ with the fire of God’s love and ‘renews us’ for the service of God’s Kingdom because we have prayed for that Spirit to descend upon us and because God is faithful in granting such a prayer. However, this insight is not new and I’m grateful for the insights of Lev Gillet in respect of the Orthodox liturgy, where he insists that God can give spiritual gifts to those who never receive the sacramental signs (Orthodox Spirituality, London 1945). The Eucharist is not magic, conjouring up the presence of Christ through a set incantation, but an expression in time and in a particular place of what cannot be contained by time or space. The Eucharist is a door through which we pass into the cosmic work of renewal that is the outpouring of the Father’s love through the working of the Spirit, who makes Christ present to us.

To have the invocation of the Spirit at the heart of our paradigmatic Christian prayer is to recognise the universal nature of what we see in the death and resurrection of Christ. The whole world is reconciled to God in the paschal mystery, not just the lives of believers. Nonetheless, this work of renewal does concern us in our own particularity – it’s not just ‘out there’. Indeed, our point of contact with this universal mystery is the renewal of our own lives through the working of that same Spirit. I suspect there are many ways in which the particular and the universal connect. Among them, surely, is the necessity for inner transformation before any true and lasting change can happen at a communal level. But the activity of God’s life-giving Spirit cannot be limited by the extent to which we are individually transformed. That’s why we don’t just pray for ourselves. Life in the Spirit is a matter of ‘joining in’ with what the life-giving God is doing.

 

Sermon for Easter 7

Five years ago, Pope Francis issued a most remarkable text, an encyclical unlike any that precedes it because it is addressed to all people of goodwill and because it confronts a matter of grave concern, which is the wellbeing of the creation itself. Laudato Si’ is also remarkable in taking as its starting point that great hymn of St Francis, the Canticle of the Creatures, with its opening words as the title of the encyclical in the medieval Italian of the troubadour rather than the formal Latin of the academy. He has invited people everywhere to reflect on this text over the last week and, if you’ve not yet had the chance to read it, it’s easily available for free online. It’s far more than just a call to action in respect of the steps we all must take to protect the integrity of the creation. It’s also, and perhaps above all, a call to see the creation differently, not as stuff to be consumed by us greedy humans but as an intricate whole of which we are a part, a vibrant, living system that proclaims the love of its Creator, and invites the grateful praise of its articulate creatures.

St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, 1297 - 1299 - Giotto

If all of this seems like an intrusion into the liturgical cycle, just as it approaches its Paschal climax at the great Festival of Pentecost, I would like to suggest that it unquestionably belongs here, at this pivotal point between Ascension and Pentecost. In the Ascension of Christ, we may appear to be telling a story of his being taken away from the earth, but what is actually going on is rather different. Far from indicating a removal from the created realm, Jesus’ ascension reveals the nature of his presence in the world. He may not be obviously available to our usual way of recognising another person in the narrative flow of history, but his presence is no less real. Indeed, his ascension reveals that he fills all things. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus must go from his disciples in order to be present with them and within them in a different way. But it’s not really a new way. God’s creative presence in his creation was there from the start.

I think we’ve got too used to thinking of creation as a process of production – you make something and then forget about it, letting it do its own thing. You get the stuff together, make it into something else, and set it on its course. But biblical insight offers a much more dynamic picture than that. Think of that most eloquent Psalm of creation, Ps 104, which is recited every single evening in the Orthodox service of Vespers. In verses 29 and 30 it says:

You hide your face, they are dismayed; you take away their breath, they die, returning to the dust from which they came. You send forth your spirit, and they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.

Creation is not a machine. It is alive, and its very life is dependent on the sustaining love of God who breathes his life into it from moment to moment. God’s very presence energises all that lives. Nothing is inert, nothing is static, the whole creation hums with the energies of God, charged, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said, with the grandeur of God. He went on to speak of the Holy Ghost brooding over the curve of the earth with warm breast and bright wings. The earth lives because the living God sustains it in life.

What the Ascension of Christ reveals to us is that this loving, sustaining presence is none other than the presence of the one who healed the sick, welcomed the outcast and dined with sinners. There is, then, an intimate connection between our love for the marginalised and the suffering, and our love for the pulsing, energetic, diversity of creation. God, who is present sustaining all life, is God who binds up wounds, God whose wounds we bind when we tend the needs of the weakest. We care for creation because God is in it. We care for creation because God is in us. We cannot be indifferent to life. We care because we love, because we desire the fullness of life for all.

If climate catastrophe is to be averted, it is unlikely that we will achieve what must be done through political calculations alone. Without passionate love for creation, will we truly find the motivation to change the way we live? Without a true conversion towards the very stuff of the earth, will be able to move away from seeing ourselves as consumers and begin to see ourselves as brothers and sisters of all that lives? This current crisis of a pandemic, caused by our carelessness with the creation, offers an opportunity to refresh our awareness of the intimate connections we share with all that lives, and to do so with a deepened compassion. Our lockdown has caused us to look again at what we really need to live well and to appreciate the small things. Our awareness of the sufferings of others has caused us to see again the impact of our actions on others. Our sense of fragility has opened up to us the opportunity to delight in the freshness of each new day, the vibrancy of each budding flower or passing bird. And at this time when we look in vain towards heaven for the ascended Christ, we are invited to open our eyes and see him in every living molecule. As we await the coming of the Spirit, we embrace life with every breath and give thanks for the one who breathes it into us. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, how great you are, clothed in majesty and honour, wrapped in light as with a robe!’

 

Desert as Icon

Explore the clifftop monasteries of Meteora, Greece

Early on in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis pays tribute to the ecological spirituality and leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. Francis refers to the spiritual roots of environmental problems as identified by Bartholomew, who invites us ‘to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply give up.”‘ Bartholomew urges us;

to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.

My reflections on Laudato Si’ have been focused on the dimension of spirituality, on the primary motivation for our renewed – converted – relationship with the earth because it strikes me that the tasks in hand are not contentious; carbon reduction, renewable energy, reduced consumption. What is much harder is discovering the motivation to do this. Both Francis and Bartholomew offer much wisdom in this regard.

An Orthodox approach to ecological spirituality is beautifully presented in John Chryssavgis’ book, Creation as Sacrament. Having previously written (equally beautifully) on the Desert tradition, it is not surprising that he returns there to affirm a spirituality which is both ascetical and mystical. It is ascetical in demonstrating a pattern of life that seeks not dominance over creation but respectful, affirming submission to it. In the desert, one must travel light and learn the fundamental disposition of letting go ‘which is necessary to a proper relationship with God, world, and oneself.’ One faces ‘the pain and passion of life in all its intensity’, far from any distraction, pride or pretence.

The desert instills a spirituality that is mystical in that those who enter it do so out of a love for the place and who discover there an icon of Divine Beauty, and I use that word in its specific, theological sense. Icons are kissed, venerated as true, sacramental portals to the reality they present. They are honoured as windows to the divine, but not worshipped as God. This leads us to another vital understanding in an Orthodox approach to the nature of God in the world. God is not absent or distant from the world, but intimately present through his energies. The whole world is energised by divine presence such that it is possible to affirm that the world is part of God but not the whole of God. It is important to affirm that God is both near and far, present both in and beyond what we can see and, therefore, able to sustain and transform the world, including ourselves as part of it.

With these two insights held side-by-side, we both assume full responsibility for our place in the world, and delight in the One whose ‘power sustains’ and whose ‘love restores’ it (Eucharistic Prayer IV, Scottish Liturgy).

Conversion to the Earth

I was drawn to a reflection on Laudato Si’ by Eric Jensen, a Jesuit, who calls on some interesting Ignatian insights to talk about the invitation to a conversion that lies at the heart of the encyclical. He suggests that one may have either a religious or a moral conversion that leads to a renewed relationship with the earth. Beginning with a religious conversion, we are drawn to an awareness of a loving creator who cares passionately about all created life and from there to a change of heart about how we then relate to (rather than use) the other parts of God’s creation. Beginning from a moral conversion, which may be the norm for most people in this part of the world, it is also possible that a care for – a love for – the earth may move us to a desire for the Source of life, the source of beauty.

Of course, Jesuits are well-versed in the movements of heart that are involved in a conversion. The Spiritual Exercises are, above all, a path of conversion. They begin with a ‘diagnosis’ of our situation, which is precisely what the Jesuit Pope does in Laudato Si’, for clear discernment of what is true is the necessary precondition for a change of heart. In naming the specific challenges of our ecological crisis, the skills and insights of science are indispensable. I am struck by how much of this thinking is present in the writing of William Johnston SJ, whose work I am researching.

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In one of his last books,Arise, My Love…’ Johnston also saw the need for many conversions in our current context: a conversion to the body to overcome mind-body dualism that continues to plague so much Western thought; a conversion to the poor in imitation of the Jesus who emptied himself; a conversion to the ‘other’ through dialogue; a conversion of Christians to welcome the insights of all who are passionate for truth through the attentive work of scientific research. All of these changes of heart are bound up in the call to conversion in Laudato Si’: our embodied nature as part of an interdependent creation; our embrace of the way of simplicity and our option for the poor as an essential realisation of the true impact of climate change; a deep solidarity with all who share a concern for truth and for the renewal of humanity through faith, compassion and contemplation. The path of conversion is not a discrete religious activity but is a way of life, a way for life.

Laudato Si’ Week

Pope Francis has invited people to take this week as an opportunity to reflect on his encyclical, Laudato Si’. For an excellent overview of the document, try this piece by the now Provincial for the Jesuits in Britain, Damian Howard. I thought I’d offer some responses to this remarkable text in the course of the week.

Saint Francis of Assisi (detail) - Cimabue - WikiArt.org

First of all, I think it is essential to recognise the basis of Francis’ approach in a spirituality that is deeply rooted in Christian tradition. It is a spirituality that is expressed most powerfully in St Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, from whose opening line the encyclical takes its name. The Canticle directly addresses elements of the created world as brothers and sisters and with which Francis was united by ‘bonds of affection.’ This aspect of fraternal love for all creatures is vital. Our attempts to restore balance with the rest of creation is not best motivated by duty but by love. Pope Francis adds another Franciscan element to his holistic and ecological spirituality, which is a love of poverty and a love of the poor. He sees no distinction between love for our fellow human beings – especially those who are poor – and love for the wider creation. And the sense in which poverty itself can be loved is the sense in which it is a love of simplicity and restraint, spiritually detached from possessions. This, in turn, requires ‘being at peace with oneself’ and an attitude of ‘serene attentiveness’ which overcomes the anxiety that we feed with our greedy consumerism. In a practical vein, the spirituality that motivates Laudato Si’ encourages a life lived with ‘daily gestures which break the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.’ And finally, the mystical insight at the heart of the encyclical is that ‘the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely’ – God is present in each of the ‘sublime realities’ of life. For this latter insight, Francis calls on St John of the Cross, whose Spiritual Canticle speaks of the vast, graceful, bright and fragrant mountains’, and dares to say that ‘These mountains are what my Beloved is to me’.

I think many in the wider environmental movement recognise that a conversion of our world towards a more sustainable future will not be accomplished without an underlying spirituality. Pope Francis has proposed this very thing and has invited us all to join in the conversation.

Hid Divinity

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing used this endearing phrase in his free rendering of Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology. In his more famous work, the author advised that ‘no one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge; but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love’ (ch. 4, Bill Johnston’s translation). He invited us to be at home in the darkness of the cloud that seems to exist between our mind and God, feeling nothing but a ‘naked intent towards God’. It is, of course, the central paradox of mystical theology that so many words are used in the attempt to describe our reaching out towards the unknowable God who first reaches out towards us. Even the great ‘doctor de la nada’, St John of the Cross, indulged in a great many complex and technical words in his account of the ascent of a mountain whose way and end is nothing, nothing, nothing. Surely, the wise course would simply be to say nothing about the One of whom nothing can be said.

Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling: William ...

Appealing as this may seem to weary theologians and exhausted preachers, I think it simply won’t do. This is not because we can ever fully grasp with our minds that which may only be grasped through love (here meaning self-transcending ‘naked intent’) but because it is a very real temptation to say wrong or unhelpful things about God, even if we must retain a certain hesitation about saying anything at all. More than that, it seems to me to be a very noble thing to seek to understand that which is most important in life, humbly admitting at the outset that there are limitations to such an enterprise. Of course, the work of theology will always be something of a vertiginous looking into the abyss of the unknown, but should we fear to do so, once we have admitted our proper sense of hesitation?

Unsurprisingly, it is often the theology that is expressed without such hesitation that is the most dangerous – theology that confidently claims God for our own causes or that sets out a simple formula whose reliable output is salvation. The response to this, surely, is not to abandon the project altogether but to do it better, more carefully, more generously, more mystically. Mysticism is not an excuse not to think but an invitation to think the unthinkable as far as one can before falling back into the silence from which the exploration sprang. It is quite appropriate to recognise the absurdity of trying to say anything about God, but let’s not give up trying.