From West to East and Back in a New Way
Letter # 1
The following is an edited excerpt of an exchange between a Forum member and two other members. This is another fine example of the kind of exchanges we hope the Forum will foster.
I am 47 years old, married with four children, and I've been praying contemplatively since 1977 with the spiritual guidance of Fr. Thomas Keating, the founder of the Centering Prayer Movement in the U.S. Back then you didn't hear much about Christian contemplation. My teachers were St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and also, to a large extent, Sri Ramakrisna through a book I picked up in a library. When I began sitting in 1977 almost immediately, and over a period of several months, I began experiencing a recurrent, overwhelming sweetness in my soul which was always absorbing and energy draining, and which always deprived me of my appetite for food or drink. Sometimes I'd be flooded with an indescribable joy and often there was within me what I used to call an ongoing party. I wouldn't know how else to describe it. This party was all spiritual and it would appear spontaneously and independently, as if in the background of my consciousness. Sometimes it would be hours before I would stop and acknowledge its presence! Then there were the all-consuming, burning longings for God the Father which caused me to long for death with all my strength. On several occasions I, too, experienced a burning furnace within my heart, but this was a very sacred experience, not a mere physical one. The Fire within me was a Living Fire, no doubt about that! It was always felt in my heart or soul, and once it opened what felt like a wound on one side of the lower part of my heart. By themselves these experiences would have been just that: experiences. The main thing about them is that they always brought me a sense of God's Presence and of His utter, loving desirability. In short, I fell in love with God.
I also experienced pressure in my head later on. I even went to get a cat-scan, but the doctor could find nothing wrong. This only lasted a few months and it didn't bother me much, perhaps because I don't pay much attention to the body. What I couldn't help noticing, though, is what follows.
It began a few months after the onset of the experiences I have described and I would call them the other side, or their negative side. Delight was experienced as oppressing anguish of soul, the sweetness and the party turned to tears in my heart so that the impression was that of being wrung out like a wet cloth. I moved about as if the weight of the whole world was upon my shoulders, drained of energy, relentlessly pursued by this awful pain in my soul which took from me the ability to concentrate while dimming my consciousness of the external world. When in that state I only wanted to retreat into solitude and cry because the interior pain demanded tears, but I often couldn't even to that due to my four small children who needed my constant attention. I have had those experiences many times over a period of several years. They would always come gradually and leave abruptly, and if a curtain were suddenly being lifted.
One particular experience that leaves me baffled to this day has to do with a strange light flashing before me while in prayer. I saw it once a month with my eyes opened or closed, and each time it appeared to come nearer until once it seemed to explode on my face as it entered my head. This startled me so much that I opened my eyes immediately. I felt somewhat violated and puzzled, but there was nothing I could do. One month later I saw the light exit my head, and it then looked much dimmer and transparent. I believe this is the first time I have ever mentioned this experience to anybody. I just naturally assumed no one would be able to interpret it for me.
Comment: The fact that you saw the strange light flashing, whether your eyes were open or closed, might point to the origin of the light being connected with the activation of the visual part of the brain. Things like this can happen during kundalini -type experiences. The activation of this energy, i.e., the pressure in the head and various feelings of electrical currents, and so forth, can also have optical side-effects. Philip St. Romain's book Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality discusses some of these experiences.
Forum Member: For the past 10 years I've been wandering through desert and dark lands and my feelings of love for the Father have become more interiorized to where I am often not aware of them. Now I am able to think of things other than God, whereas for many years I could think of nothing else. Prayer is an almost constant wasteland and I am faltering. I don't think I can hang on anymore. Sometimes, however, I surprise myself when I find I can still cry for God and tell Him how much I miss Him. Then I realize that I am not at all over it. I still love Him just the same as I did back then, perhaps even more, because by now I've built a relationship based on selfless and unconditional love. But prayer is often experienced as unbearably tedious and empty. Frustration for being unable to discipline my mind always accompanies my prayer. But then to me prayer is only a means to the end. I don't really care what it takes, whether it's contemplation, Zen, yoga and what not, as long as it gives me God the Father.
There is another thing I have noticed. I am a Jesus person, yet every time I experience the Presence of God it's always the Father I experience. I don't say this with the least regret, because the Father is wonderful, utterly desirable, and powerful. He impressed His power upon me in a way that was always overwhelming. Why is it that Jesus Himself eludes me? I have confessed Him in front of unbelievers, and I love Him. I don't know why it is the loving Father Who comes to me rather than Jesus. I love the Father, but I feel I have lost touch with Him. If I didn't find some way to distract myself and go on living I don't think I would want to live anymore, because He is my life, and He is gone. However, even though I am counting the days, I still can't bring myself to pray for death because I see that I am still needed here.
Comment: One possibility about Jesus "eluding" you: the whole purpose of Jesus in His Incarnation was to draw us to the Father. Could it be possible that the closer you get to Jesus, the more you share in His being, which is to lift everything up to the Father? If that were the case, then you would tend not to be looking at Jesus the closer you drew to Him.
You should certainly consider writing a spiritual journal or autobiography if you do not already do so. This, of course, is not to become overly self-absorbed, but simply as an aid in exploring what is happening. There are vast interior universes that we travel through on the spiritual journey, and they comprise psychological as well as metaphysical and spiritual dimensions, and it is often very difficult to sort out what is going on. The same energy that can be devastating to the soul if it takes on a negative face, or tremendously elating if it takes on a positive one, perhaps is calling us to avoid both the negative and positive faces which are often ways of us reducing it to the small dimensions that the ego can comprehend. It is almost as if we become schooled in making the ego transparent to these energies that are much greater than itself. In the final analysis it is faith which, as St. John of the Cross says, is the proximate means of our union with God, and we have to hold to that faith through all the highs and lows.
Forum Member: This morning I have been attempting to analyze my present attitude towards God, and I saw that He is now asking for a "personal" direct response from me. My first reaction was one of denial. I didn't want to have to deal with it. Too much pain. I began to cry, and as I wept I understood I had been hiding from God all these years. True, I have been doing everything by the book as far as love is concerned, but I had withdrawn my heart from Him to protect myself from further pain. I understood the Lord wants to heal me at that level now, by deepening my trust in Him. In my mind's eye I saw a swirling concentric spiral signifying the ongoing process of healing, growth and deepening of one's personal commitment to God.
Consciously I am making attempts to be open to God, to say YES to Him, but I can see that at a deeper level there is a lot of resistance to the degree of pain, disappointment and rejection I suffered all those years. And there is also this nagging voice within me telling me none of this is happening, God is not asking for a direct relationship, I am making it all up, it's just my imagination. It wants me to ignore the whole thing and go on with life as always. So Faith is also being exercised to a great extent.
I would like to know the truth. It seems to be that now He wants a more "personal" involvement from me and this mere notion makes me want to run away in fear. I need help. I am afraid to give Him my heart again. I could cut myself into pieces for Him and it wouldn't hurt as much! He is asking me to come out of hiding, to lay my heart bare once again, and all I want to say to Him is just let me be! I don't want to leave the ordinary path. Love in action can exist independently of experienced Love. It is possible to love God indirectly, like most people do. Why does He have to mess with me? I don't want to be "played" again, to lost control of what I feel and what I think. At the same time I want to say YES, because I do love and trust Him. I just don't know how.
#1 Response: You say you are repelled by emptiness. The true emptiness is a total void of "things/thingness." Only in such an emptiness of all "things" can God who is Nothing (NO THING) be encountered as He is. So be patient with and grateful for emptiness. In the middle of it begin developing the frequent flexing of your Faith/as Christ. Since this Faith is Christ, you are not alone in the emptiness. Christ will lead you to eventually know the emptiness as the fullest of all fullness -- all which is or can be emerges from it -- through Christ, who is your constant companion, Whom you can "call up" whenever you wish through this simply internal motion/reflex of Faith.
While nailed to the barn door (for years) baking in the sun and being internally scraped clean with a wire brush I learned what faith really is, and what it is for. This is not the faith of, "I believe in..." This is Faith as a tremendously powerful inner muscle which can be "flexed" whenever we choose. With each flexing the muscle becomes stronger. What is the muscle? The deepest reality of this internal, spiritual muscle, with which (and only with which) we can cling to Reality and continue to move forward and grow spiritually in the dark night of the spirit is that it is, in the fullest truth, CHRIST HIMSELF.
John of the Cross referred to the Night of Spirit as the "Night of Faith." This is what he meant. In this night we are of necessity stripped of all that is other than God. But, the great secret is that God remains (in total darkness for the most part) as the spiritual reflex and muscle which we can use whenever we wish in the middle of the desert. Simply to grasp, to cling, to reach out with our fullest strength from our center is to "activate" the Spirit of Christ within us. The act by which we do this IS THE VERY PRESENCE OF CHRIST!
#2 Response: The story of this journey embodies a familiar pattern in Christian contemplative experience: an initial period in which the graces of God flow abundantly like sweet water given whenever and wherever it is desired, then followed by a long period of night so difficult and perplexing it can feel like there is no spiritual life left.
But our Forum member clearly brings out the psychological dimension of such a journey, and this is what I would like to focus on. On one level this encounter with God is like falling in love. At the beginning we can be overwhelmed with a wonderful sense of wholeness and completion, which can often be followed by disillusionment and pain. Things are not like we thought they were. We feel betrayed and abandoned. So at one level it is easy enough to understand that we can feel this way about God, as well. But there is a vital difference which introduces us to a deeper level of things that is rooted not in the failings and fickleness of the one we love, for we would be loathe to attribute these attributes to God, but which are connected to the very nature of contemplation.
When we begin the spiritual life, how else can we relate to God than through our normal channels of thinking and feeling, sensing and intuiting? In short, we use the natural faculties of the soul, and they can feel flooded with God's presence. But the infused contemplation that John of the Cross is talking about by its very nature cannot come through these faculties. They are simply too limited to receive it. It has to be given in the very center of the soul, or we could say, in the depths of the spiritual unconscious. But if it is given in those depths, that does not mean it will always be perceptible to the ego. Therefore, the loss of our former way of relating to God through our faculties can feel like the loss of God without qualification, and this is true even if contemplative graces might be present in the depths of the soul.
The way that contemplation comes into the soul has important psychological ramifications. It is only reasonable that if an event like God's presence in a new way in the depths of the soul takes place, then it will have a profound effect on the natural psychic or psychological energies of the soul. Is it not possible that the soul will now have a new center even from the point of view of psychic energy which will now appear to be flowing out of the ego, leaving it listless and even feeling dead? Then it can seem like all the spiritual life that the soul possessed has evaporated. The ego then feels hurt and resentful, for it doesn't understand why it should die. It takes all this personally! Then it is faced with two possibilities. It can cling to its resentment about being abandoned, or it can try to understand that the nature of contemplation itself can demand the soul being turned inside out, as it were, and with that understanding, let the old sense of hurt go and try to relate to this new center. As Response #1 so carefully points out, this relating takes place by faith, which is often a very stripped and naked faith, but very real and fruitful nonetheless.
One final qualification. I don't mean to imply that every loss of the initial sense of consolation and presence of God can be attributed to the beginning of infused contemplation. If that were so, John of the Cross would not have needed his three signs to begin with, and the other possible reasons for this darkness represent another area well worth exploring.
In 1968 San Francisco was a bustling marketplace of spirituality with many different groups: Ramakrisna, Meher Baba, Russian Orthodox, Sufi... and Japanese Zen.
After getting out of the U.S. Navy and being in a state of almost constant emotional stress - not helped by years of reading philosophy - I went to San Francisco to study Zen.
From the first moment I entered the San Francisco Zen Center's old Bush Street zendo I knew I was home. The deep spiritual atmosphere of stillness and utter sincerity was alive in the dark halls of this old building.
In the next days I met the most decent, whole, peaceful, and compassionate people I have ever encountered: Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Master, and Dainin Katagiri, Zen teacher.
Over these many years I have continued the daily meditation they taught me called zazen. But fully committing myself to any- thing else Buddhist was always a problem. Something deep within me never felt at home in a Buddhist context. Many of the sutras and teachings were not comforting or encouraging to me. I kept coming back to Christianity, particularly the Russian Orthodox tradition.
So now more than ever I feel drawn to try to walk daily in my heart the way Christ did, choosing over and over again to let go of self-interest and just respond to all beings from the deep heart's core, a place beyond human speculation and effort. Dare I say what resides in this "place?" But from it one tastes freedom, peace, great compassion and tenderness, wisdom, and even bliss. Suffering still exists, but one explores it from new angles.
I am looking for a Christian prayer connection to support this new movement toward a more silent type of Christian meditation.
Letter #2: 1 was baptized and confirmed in a mainline Protestant denomination, but had a conversion experience as a teenager which let me into a more conservative evangelical denomination. I had intended to become a minister, but after starting college found that I could no longer believe in most traditional Christian doctrines and eventually became an atheist. This spiritual crisis was my own "dark night of the soul," and I came to feel that Western religion in general and Christianity in particular had absolutely nothing to offer. I began to study Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, and one night in a state of extreme anxiety had an experience in which everything suddenly "made sense" - not in a rational and intellectual way, but in a spiritual and intuitive way. Influenced no doubt by what I had been reading, I associated all intellectual paradoxes I had been anxious about with Buddhist koans and the mystical experience which followed with Buddhist enlightenment.
Eventually I had the opportunity to come to Japan and I spent three years actively studying Zen and practicing meditation at a Buddhist temple near my house. During this period I think I was able to make a lot of progress spiritually and increasingly felt that spirituality had more to do with direct experience than with doctrines, creeds, or ideas. Yet as my practice continued I came to feel that I was concentrating too much on my own inner experience and not enough on love and compassion for others. I had also become familiar enough with Buddhism to see that, just like Christianity, it had certain shortcomings, at least in the way it was actually practiced. Buddhism seemed strong on inner spiritual development, but weak on social concern, whereas Christianity seemed the reverse. After three years I left the Buddhist temple and have since been active on social and political issues, particularly in the environmental movement.
Even though I remain deeply appreciative of what Buddhism has taught me, I am now trying to find a way to return to my Christian roots. I am aware that this is partly a cultural phenomenon for me. Having lived in Japan for fourteen years, Eastern religions no longer strike me as exotic, and I have come to appreciate certain strengths in the Western tradition which I had previously overlooked. I spent a great deal of time reading back through the history of Christianity and came to the conclusion that there was nothing I had learned from Buddhism that I could not find parallels for in the Christian tradition. It's a stereotype to say that the East has a monopoly on intuitive insights while the West is all rationalism and empiricism. I was also helped immensely by reading William Johnston's books on Christian Zen and Western mysticism, and have had the opportunity to talk with him personally since he also lives here in Tokyo.
I am aware, as your newsletter mentions, that the contemplative tradition has "fared poorly" in the West, and was equally disturbed to learn from my readings in church history that mysticism has been not just neglected, but often actively suppressed by institutional churches (of various denominations). Most churches continue to insist on conformity to certain religious doctrines, external forms of ecclesiastical authority, and/or a literal interpretation of scripture, all of which I find problematic. My own experience has been to rely on the inner leading of the spirit (which manifests itself in outward deeds of love), but most churches still seem caught up in externalities. As a result I have not yet really been able to find a church where I truly feel at home. It is still impossible for me to believe in many traditional doctrines, but I think I have found something far more important - a spirituality based on direct experience and a personal encounter with the divine.
Still, I think there needs to be a complete rethinking of traditional theology from a mystical, rather than a dogmatic, point of view. There seems to be a real tension, for example, between an adherence to the traditional theological formulations of the ecumenical councils and the apophatic tradition in mystical theology which holds that no human statements about God can ever be regarded as entirely true. There are also problems, I feel, when following ecclesiastical authority, or the Bible is placed on a higher plane than following the Holy Spirit. Mystics have always been in conflict with institutional religion, but hopefully we are past the time when genuinely creative work in mystical theology is regarded as heresy and mystics are burned at the stake!
Comment: These heart-felt letters pose important and difficult questions. In both we see the great benefits that were derived from Buddhist meditation at a time when the Western Christian churches were, for the most part, remiss in teaching about the Christian mystical tradition. This turn to the East has been repeated over and over again in our times, and the zendos of America have many former and even practicing Christians.
But these letters point to a less common phenomenon, or at least it has been less common up until now: a desire to return in some way to Christianity. This is a sign, I hope, of a new level of maturity in the East-West dialogue. Christianity has its own vital inner traditions which are meant to lead to union with God. The East-West dialogue need not be a oneway street when it comes to interior practice, nor do we have to assume that both traditions are talking about the same thing in different words. Unfortunately, a sense of adventure that comes from actively following an interior path has been absent too often in the Christian churches, and this poses a grave problem for those who are trying in some way to return to Christianity. Where are they to go? Do we tell them to sit in the pews of churches where Christians often sit silently enduring instead of finding the help they need in order to go along their way? Yet, can they find a genuine return to Christianity without some kind of solid connection to a living Christian community?
Is this to say, as one letter asks, that there is a tension not only between the Christian tradition of prayer and contemplation, and the human failure to safeguard that tradition in the churches, but also a deeper one between the mystical way and dogma? I don't think that this is so even though theology has often become overacademic and been so long divorced from spirituality. In light of the failure of the Christian churches to cherish their spiritual traditions, it is now becoming popular to point the finger at dogma as one of the culprits. But the real problem is not dogma properly understood, but dogma which is passed on in a mechanical fashion as some kind of end in itself which must be accepted, but not thought about. This misunderstanding of dogma rests, in turn, on a misunderstanding of both faith and theology. Faith has been too often treated as something that is opposed to understanding, and we are left with the feeling that Christians dare not think. That is nonsense. We should say, rather, with St. Augustine, "Love the intellect greatly!" Theology is meant to be a vigorous use of the intellect. In the context of the Forum, for example, we need to use our minds to the utmost to reflect on our interior journeys and help lay the foundations for a renewed Christian spirituality.
But this use of the intellect is not meant to degenerate into sterile debates. The mind in theology ought to be guided and nourished by faith which, in turn, is guided and nourished by love so that the outcome will be a reflection on the Christian mysteries that will inspire and nourish us in our interior lives because it will give us a glimpse about what the inner journey is all about and where it is heading.
Faith is not meant to stop at words about the divine mysteries, but rather, it rests, as St. Thomas says, in the mysteries themselves. If the heart of theology is faith, then it, too, must do the same thing, and when we take up such a perspective much of the tension between the dogmatic and the mystical begins to melt away. The rest will disappear if we realize that dogma, taken in the highest sense, is the privileged self-reflection of the Church, itself, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, trying to fathom the mystery of Christ. Then dogmas are rightly seen as windows through which we can catch a glimpse of the divine mystery, a mystery that is living in our hearts and is the goal of the Christian inner journey. The very mystery of the indwelling of the Trinity that we approach within is the same mystery that we are meant to draw close to without through dogma and theological reflections upon it.
It is summer here in the forest, fairly cool with deep blue skies, and a bit more rain than usual. We put one of the final touches on Tyra's meditation hut, which is an 8' x 8' building that looks like a Pacific Northwest version of a Japanese tea house. It is a stained glass window that we made from 1" thick slabs of richly colored glass, which we scored with a glass cutter, broke with a hammer, and faceted with a chisel. The window looks magnificent when the sun shines on it. Tyra just finished a video on Oregon's Cob Cottage Company, which is pioneering inexpensive and ecologically sane ways to create affordable housing out of earth. Jim has been working away on a book about quantum theory, morphic fields, and synchronicity in relationship to a Thomist philosophy of nature.
We are doing two retreats soon, one for married couples called "Two Secrets That Can Transform, Your Marriage," which is based on Jung's psychology and a Christian theology of marriage, and "St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung" that looks at prayer and contemplation in the light of Jungian psychology.
Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum Newsletter Copyright 1995