Beyond fences

Many of our institutions are struggling to seem relevant these days, that includes the church in its various forms. There are many reasons for this.

One reason is that for a long time religious institutions, such as the church, have tried to maintain a monopoly on access to the spiritual. ‘Come here’ they say, ‘do this’ or ‘read that’ and you can access the divine; the spiritual realm. Institutions as gatekeepers.

One of the great shifts in recent years has been the growing realisation that spirituality is not confined by a set of walls or dogmas, increasing proportions of society have come to see that they can perceive or experience the spiritual beyond the confines that the institutions have appeared to present. Beyond the fences that they were told were unclimbable. This loss of monopoly has added to the difficulties experienced by other institutions, making some of the religious institutions that rely upon it appear as if they have no relevance beyond that of cultural belonging. Gatekeepers are pointless if fences are illusions.

Simon J Cross – Weekday meditation 2/7/2021

For far too long I have tended to believe in the gatekeepers and their narratives of the borderlines. For far too long I felt, albeit unconsciously, that access to the spiritual, or at least to meaningful spiritual practice, depended upon making the right choice of gateway; at least on finding the gateway that was right for me, a gate for whose lock I had the key

Sufficient introspection would have told me I was wrong, but there never seemed to be a gap for sufficient introspection. Being part of a religious institution put constraints on that kind of introspection, kept me thinking in the well-worn tracks of the (in my case Christian) doctrine and praxis I knew so well, effectively limiting my conclusions to those that would fit within the fences they defined.

The past 18 months or so, with churches and the places where people meet so often closed, or reduced to meeting online, have proved those fences to be illusory. The barriers between the selves I have seemed to be have proved illusory also: there is no longer any unavoidable incompatibility between thought and experience, between hope and grace.

In an article on the Secular Buddhist Network Robert M Ellis writes, “I do not describe myself as a Buddhist, because that process of practical examination of what works is far more important to me than loyalty to any tradition. Instead, I describe myself as a ‘Middle Way practitioner’ – where the Middle Way is understood as a universal principle that can be found both in Buddhism and in many other places.”

I am not sure that I would even describe myself as a middle way practitioner (with or without capitals), or a Quaker – still less a Buddhist – these days. (I rather like the way Sam Harris, in Waking Up, avoids handing his key to that gatekeeper.) There must be many of us Einzelgänger und Einzelgängerinnen out here now, beyond the fences, and I’m coming to suspect that we don’t need to form communities, adopt labels, and things like that. We will find each other if we need each other, and just as the current pandemic that has given so many of us space to breathe is a fact of our time, so too is the technology that enables the publication of things like this at the click of a button.

It seems to me that the dark and anxious times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must “join the fight” against this or that injustice, or “struggle” against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war.

It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting my self out of the way of that channel of wordless gift. The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way – of standing still enough perhaps to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of stillness.

[An earlier version of this post was published elsewhere earlier this year.]

Is that all?

It seems that we are all too prone to underestimate the treasures of the mind and spirit that are available quite freely and openly to anyone at all. Mindfulness, and associated contemplative practices can be seen as merely techniques for “stress-reduction”, and hence increased workplace effectiveness; Friends’ meeting for worship can be reduced to a means merely to recharge the batteries for activism. But there really is more than this.

Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary. And the conventional opposition between humility and hubris has no place here. Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

Sam Harris, Waking Up, Transworld Digital, p.206

We sit by the pool where the nine hazels drop their nuts, and we skim stones. The salmon of wisdom nibbles our toes, and we giggle and take a selfie. May our hearts open, instead, to the wonders at our feet.

[Note: for the hazels and the salmon, see the story of Fionn MacCumhaill]

Listening for the Light in the silence

The Quaker way of making decisions, through a listening process often described as looking for the will of God for the group, gives a basis for a shared understanding of what kind of God might be involved. That isn’t automatically anything which is named ‘God’ or would be recognised as the God of another tradition. The Nontheist Friends Network use Quaker business method for their decision making and they are clear that they see the ‘will of God’ as metaphorical language to explain a complex, but not supernatural, phenomenon. There are still things we can say about the Spirit which guides a Quaker meeting for worship for business, though. It can be sensed in a room. It can have a direction and make distinctions: yes this, not that. It is worth trusting.

Rhiannon Grant, Telling the Truth About God: Quaker Approaches to Theology, Quaker Quicks, p.14

During meeting for worship, and even more in our own practice of prayer or contemplation, we can enter a condition analogous to that known in Sōtō Zen as Shikantaza, derived from a Chinese term in Caodong Buddhism, usually translated into English as “Silent Illumination”, or “Serene Reflection”. Merv Fowler, however (in a now out of print book) translates it as “open awareness”, which seems to me a much better, less other-worldly translation. It is this condition which, in my understanding, allows us to listen for the Light in the silence. Meister Eckhart, to put it in a Christian contemplative context, calls it gelassenheit. It is from this place of open awareness that true ministry comes, and in the Quaker decision-making process, is – at least ideally – the source of our discernment.

This practice of quiet listening, together and individually, is what lies at the heart of Quakerism, and is the source of our faith and the root of our practice. We lose sight of it at our peril: without it, an aggressive, politically polarised activism based on “send[ing] our passions on God’s errands” (William Penn) misses the real source of our strength, and loses track of the sure wisdom that rests in silence.

Quiet…

“. . . concerning the manner of this Seed or Light’s operation in the hearts of all men, which will show yet more manifestly how we differ vastly from all those that exalt a natural power or light in man; and how our principle leads, above all others, to attribute our whole salvation to the mere power, spirit, and grace of God. . . I say . . . that as the Grace and Light in all is sufficient to save all, and of its own nature would save all; so, it strives and wrestles with all, for to save them; he that resists its striving, is the cause of his own condemnation; he that resists it not, it becomes his salvation: so that in him, that is saved, the working is of the grace, and not of the man; and it is a passiveness, rather than an act . . . So that the first step is not by man’s working, but by his not contrary working.”

Robert Barclay, Apology, Proposition V and VI, section 17, with thanks to QuakerQuaker

The heart open to grace and light in stillness; this is as close as one can get to the spirit of shikantaza, “just sitting”, in the Sōtō zen tradition. Thomas Keating writes:

The contemplative dimension of the Gospel is Christ’s program for getting acquainted with the Ultimate Reality as it really is, which is “no thing.” “No thing” means no particular thing, whether concept, feeling or bodily experience. God just is—without any limitation. And the way to connect with this “Is-ness” is to just be, too.

Thomas Keating, On Prayer, Lantern Books, p.7

We are back to “no thing“, the phrase which has haunted me for so many years, along with Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit, isness. The surrender to stillness, the quiet place in the heart (Matthew 6:6), is all that is needed. The complexities of metaphysical thought, of elaborated technique, are no more than Barclay’s “contrary working” to the one in the hidden room of prayer.

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Isaac Penington, 1661 – Quaker faith & practice 26.70

Prayer and presence

Silence is really consent to presence. How we name that presence to ourselves is not really the point at issue; what matters is how we surrender to its presence with us, how open we become to its presence within us and beneath us as the ground of our being, as the ground of there being anything at all. Thomas Keating wrote,

St Thomas Aquinas taught that God is existence and hence is present in everything that exists. If God is present everywhere, it follows that in no circumstances can we ever be separated from him. We may feel that we are; we may think that we are. But in actual fact there is no way that we can ever be apart from God even if we try.

Thomas Keating, On Prayer, Lantern Books (p.8)

Meister Eckhart wrote of God as istigkeit, isness; the ground of being was Paul Tillich’s phrase, but whatever term we use, it is obvious that it is impossible to be apart from existence, otherwise we would cease to exist. Even in the absence of a personal, discrete individual self – an absence revealed in contemplative prayer: “when we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness” (Tara Brach) – existence continues. We ourselves, as the transient flecks of self that we are, will die, but the isness that is present within us and beneath us will not.

What has this to do with prayer?

Friends tend to refer to prayer as “holding – someone, some thing or situation – in the light”, in the sense of deliberately being conscious of both the one prayed for and the ground of prayer, God, isness itself. Even when, as in individual practice – meditation, centering prayer, nembutsu or whatever – the process may not take place consciously, nevertheless the compassionate concern that drives prayer remains in the heart, and the heart is open to the presence of God.

I have often written here and elsewhere of contemplative prayer as being present to all we encounter as prayer, rather than needing consciously to say prayers: we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations merely. Our awareness is all that is needed, all that is possible.

Where it is

I grew up as the child of a single parent, outside of any formal religion. (My mother, a painter and sculptor, was an early example of someone who might today refer to themselves as spiritual, but not religious.) Before I turned five, I contracted meningitis, and spent what would have been my first year of school slowly recovering. I spent some of the most peaceful and untroubled hours of my life lying on a rug under the old apple trees in the orchard at the back of our house, listening to distant aircraft passing high overhead, or on the flaking stone bench on the patio, watching the little velvety red mites scampering in the sunlight. Time was unlike anything I’d known before, an open ground of appearing, empty of thought, mostly, but fertile with becoming.

In those long months I had no name for this clear, undimensioned place, and I don’t suppose it would have occurred to me to ask anyone what, or where, it might be. It just was, and was where I was. In many ways, the years since have been a journey back.

Tara Brach writes, in a passage I have quoted before here,

[W]hen we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness. We can’t locate any center, nor can we find an edge to our experience. Unless we anchor ourselves again in thoughts, or grasp after desired sensations or feelings, we have nowhere to stand, no firm ground. This can be disconcerting, scary, incredibly mysterious. While there may be a profusion of activity—sounds, sensations, images—there is no thing to hold on to, no self behind the curtain managing things. This seeing of no thing is what the Tibetan teachers call “the supreme seeing.”

But this emptiness, this “no-thingness,” is not empty of life. Rather, empty awareness is full with presence, alive with knowing. The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously. Like a sunlit sky, awareness is radiant in cognizance and boundless enough to contain all life…

With practice, recognizing our natural awareness takes less and less of an effort or sense of doing. Rather than climbing up a hill to get a view, we are learning the art of relaxing back and wakefully inhabiting the whole vista. We look back into awareness and then simply let go into what is seen. We become more at home in awareness than in any story of a self who is falling short or on our way somewhere else. We are at home because we have seen and experienced firsthand the vast and shining presence that is the very source of our being.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, Ebury Digital 2012 (pp. 315, 317)

When I was in my early 20s, in company with a very close and trusted friend, I undertook a short series of trips over a couple of weeks, using 250mg doses of synthetic mescaline. These were powerful, even profound experiences, entirely sober and devoid of what would popularly be thought of as “psychedelic” effects. We covered pages and pages of lined foolscap notepaper with closely written notes and curious geometric diagrams recording our experiences. I mention these because the one phrase that kept recurring, wherever we travelled, was “no thing”. Whatever avenue we explored, whatever sunken lane of the mind we entered, led to “no thing”. We wrote it, over and over again, in our notes, labelled the centres of our many diagrams with carefully drawn arrows, “no thing”. We were at a loss to explain the seemingly utter, luminous profundity of this expression either to ourselves or to each other. But it was the source and ending of all that is, and of mind itself, that much was plain.

I recall this distant psychochemical experiment now because the remembered experience forms, for me, a kind of link back to my childhood experience slowly recovering from meningitis in that sunlit Sussex orchard, and forward to the kind of meditative recognition Tara Brach describes in the passage quoted here. The light of these and similar experiences, often unremembered in any conscious way, and occurring both within and without formal contemplative discipline, are what I have lived for, really, all these years. Most certainly they are home, beyond any place or thing.

Emilia Fogelklou (she writes of herself in the third person):

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

Quaker faith & practice 26.05 

A Quiet Life

All through our repeated pandemic precautions and lockdowns, when physically attending corporate worship of any kind has been difficult, not to say inadvisable, and Zoom meetings have remained their distracting and inadequate selves, there has been plenty of time to be quiet, and to allow the assumptions and traditions by which our spiritual lives are usually conditioned to settle out, as it were, like the cloudiness in a newly-established aquarium.

Wikipedia defines religion as “a social-cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, and spiritual elements.”

Contemplation, however differently it may be defined in different traditions, is at root a kind of inner seeing, an experiential encounter with the ground of being that gives rise to, and sustains, all that is. The many techniques of contemplative practice may in the end give rise to contemplation, but their intention is generally more modest: to train attention and consciousness sufficiently to still the field of awareness, and to recognise the incessant activity of the mind as a process, or bundle of processes, that runs on beneath awareness all by itself, rather than assuming it to be a discrete and permanent self or soul, set over against its perceptions. Of course the outer forms of mediation or contemplative practice are very different, and conditioned by the religious tradition within which they arise, but very broadly something like this seems to be intended by them all.

In this period of quiet settling, separated from the religious atmosphere and bustle of corporate worship, I, as I suspect many of us, have begun to sense that the “social-cultural system” of religion is something quite separate from the “experimental faith” (cf. Quaker faith  & practice 19.02) of contemplative practice, and that, crucially, the one does not depend upon the other.

Churches and religious groups seem mostly to be operating on the assumption that now that the pandemic is coming more nearly under control, and something approaching normal life is restored, their worshippers will flood back, Catholics to Mass, Quakers to their meetings, everyone to their accustomed place. It may not be happening, at least not in the way, or to the extent, that most people appear to expect. The sea change of the pandemic, and the enforced crash course in information and communications technology it has brought, have accelerated a process of secularisation that has been gathering momentum for a long time.

Now, secularisation is a term loaded with assumptions and prejudices on the part of both those espouse it, and those who oppose any such idea. Stephen Batchelor points out (After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Agep.15, Yale University Press, Kindle Edition) that both the word “religious” and the word “secular” are difficult terms in our present time. He writes,

Secular critics commonly dismiss religious institutions and beliefs as outdated, dogmatic, repressive, and so on, forgetting about the deep human concerns that they were originally created to address… “Secular” is a term that presents as many problems as “religious.”… there seems to be no reason why avowedly “secular” people cannot be deeply “religious” in their ultimate concern to come to terms with their brief and poignant life here and now.

I have written elsewhere of my growing sense that the contemplative life is once again moving out from the monasteries and ashrams into a new desert, that of the world, or at least of places set apart within the world. I wrote then:

Time and again contemplatives have broken away from the apparent corruption of state churches on the one hand and religion-inspired revolutionaries on the other, sometimes forming loose communities, and retreated from formal organisation almost altogether. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land (Shin) schools of Buddhism founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and Quakers in 17th century England.

These contemplative movements, often based around simplicity of practice and openness to the Spirit, seem to arise when not only are the religious establishments in a compromised and sometimes corrupt condition, but the state is in flux, sometimes violent flux. [Our present political uncertainties], scoured by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, would seem to provide fertile ground for contemplative change in this way.

I have no idea where this is leading, but there is a clarity developing that I had not expected, nor intentionally “worked towards”. The inward solitude of these unusual times is proving strangely fruitful. This is what Martin Laird once called a “pathless path”; as Dave Tomlinson wrote, “Human language is unable to describe the external realities of God with any precision. As we have seen, this does not make language useless; it simply means that we have to accept its limitations… Religious language or talk about God and the spiritual realm is therefore inherently provisional and approximate in nature.”

There is no obvious name for what is happening. It seems not to be “secular” in the way religious people might fear, but it isn’t “religious” either, in the way that secularists might assume. It is not eremitical exactly, certainly not in the traditional sense of hermits as ones living in geographical isolation.

Perhaps it is time that our own silence and practice are allowed to stand untitled. The phrase used by Friends, “Meeting for Worship”, is strangely graced in this context, as is the practice itself: it has no formal structure, other than a beginning and an end, and in the tides of silence we can find, and be found by, a light which we need not name.

Silence

Quite apart from the formal silence of meeting for worship, I have loved silence as much as or more than I have loved music – and of course music is only what it is by virtue of the silence that comes with it, both the kind you can write down, that is threaded all through it, and the kind that underlies it, an open ground beneath the whole structure of sound.

Contrary to our common imagination, our solar system, and the space beyond our heliosphere, is bathed and criss-crossed with unheard, magnetic sounds, that can can even be converted to audio waves that we can hear with our human ears. ClassicFM has some samples, and NASA too has shared some from much further away in the depths of interstellar space. But under these too is silence: a silence bright with starlight and seamed with barely imaginable gravitational waves.

The fertile stillness that silence is seems very close to the dark transparency that sometimes one can touch in contemplation. It seems to me that in contemplation perhaps all we are doing is stripping away the accretions of thought and habit, draining the mind’s default mode that tries to fill our resting moments with its lowest common denominator daydreams. All that we are, all we have come from, rests in the ground of being itself, and it may be that we can touch the edge of that ground itself in silence, in the resting place between breaths, or the quiet of sitting still.

Lost in hope

Hope, in the conventional sense, is, as I’ve suggested in the last couple of posts here, generally tied to a sense of outcome. We hope something will turn out all right; we hope something else will not happen. Cynthia Bourgeault points out that what she terms mystical hope is not tied in this way. It has a life of its own, “without reference to external circumstances and conditions.”

I have noticed myself that, at least after some years of steady contemplative practice, the experience of what we think of as “loss” – serious accident, illness, bereavement, loss of livelihood, money, or status, for instance – is not necessarily accompanied by a loss of hope at the deepest level. Of course, hope in a good outcome is lost – the worst has happened, something is irretrievably broken – but underneath it all there is what feels for all the world like some kind of certainty. Beneath the quicksand is a solid ground, the bedrock of what is. As the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk saw (Habakkuk 3.17-19) though all else fails, at the end there is something more like presence than anything else.

In a long article in Tricycle Magazine, Kurt Spellmeyer reminds us that the Buddha’s illumination came only after the most profound experience of helplessness, when he was so starved and dehydrated that had a passing village girl not brought him rice and milk, he might very well not have lived the night. This, like Habakkuk’s prophecy, may or may not be historical, but it contains as profound a truth: only at the very end of conventional hope, even in our own survival, can we find that which is beyond any result or outcome, beyond any thing whatever.

This brings us, of course, to the thought of our own death. Here is the ultimate helplessness: at the end we shall be bereft of everything, even of the ability to draw the next breath. There will be no more chances, nothing to decide. Richmond Lewis, in a coma from which he was not expected to recover, had a vision of his own death very similar to experiences I have had of being close to physical death, which he memorably described as “dissolv[ing] into light”.

What could this mean? Is it a comforting(?) illusion? An artifact of failing neural circuitry? It isn’t possible, of course, to answer such a question in a way that would satisfy a scientific researcher. We are describing an experience, a “something that it is like to be”, in Thomas Nagel’s words. It does not admit of experimental verification, or if it did, the experimental subject would be in no position to report on the outcome of the experiment! But as an experience, it is as definite and actual as any: far more so than almost any other. But an experience of what?

The nearest expression of it that I can find is that it is an experience of absolute unknowing, of pure isness.

Tara Brach writes, of “the open, wakeful emptiness of awareness”:

[W]hen we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness. We can’t locate any center, nor can we find an edge to our experience. Unless we anchor ourselves again in thoughts, or grasp after desired sensations or feelings, we have nowhere to stand, no firm ground. This can be disconcerting, scary, incredibly mysterious. While there may be a profusion of activity—sounds, sensations, images—there is no thing to hold on to, no self behind the curtain managing things. This seeing of no thing is what the Tibetan teachers call “the supreme seeing.”

But this emptiness, this “no-thingness,” is not empty of life. Rather, empty awareness is full with presence, alive with knowing. The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously. Like a sunlit sky, awareness is radiant in cognizance and boundless enough to contain all life…

With practice, recognizing our natural awareness takes less and less of an effort or sense of doing. Rather than climbing up a hill to get a view, we are learning the art of relaxing back and wakefully inhabiting the whole vista. We look back into awareness and then simply let go into what is seen. We become more at home in awareness than in any story of a self who is falling short or on our way somewhere else. We are at home because we have seen and experienced firsthand the vast and shining presence that is the very source of our being.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, Ebury Digital 2012 (pp. 315, 317)

It seems to me that that “vast and shining presence” is not only the light into which we dissolve, but the ground of our being itself – and our death merely the letting go into what is seen. I hope so.

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Hope against hope

I had been intending to write a follow-up to my post, Hopeless?, when it occurred to me that I had written just such a post five years ago, on my old blog, covering the same subject, using some of the same sources, almost exactly, if you will make allowance for rather more overtly Christian language that I would probably use today. It is worth remembering, in this context, how closely parallel the Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu are, as I suggested. Here it is:

——

In her luminous little book Mystical HopeCynthia Bourgeault writes of the difference between the mystical hope of her title and the standard, upbeat product that is tied to outcome: “I hope I get the job.” “I hope they have a good time on holiday.” “I hope Jill finds her cat.” “I hope the biopsy is clear…” If we are dependent on “regular hope”, she asks, where does that leave us when it turns out to be cancer, when our friends disappear on their holiday in the Andes?

Bourgeault goes on point out that there seems to be quite another kind of hope “that is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. Beneath the ‘upbeat’ kind of hope that parts the sea and pulls rabbits out of hats, this other hope weaves its way as a quiet, even ironic counterpoint.” She goes on to quote the prophet Habakkuk, who at the end of a long passage of calamity and grief, suddenly breaks into song:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights. 

Habakkuk 3.17-19

Here is a hope that in no way depends upon outcomes; a hope that lifts us up in spite of the worst, that leads us, with Job, closer to God the more “hopeless” the circumstances. It can be found too in the writings of William Leddra, Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Irina Ratushinskaya… But how? Where could such a hope come from, that sings even in the mouth of the furnace?

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests three observations we might make about this seemingly indestructible hope, which she calls mystical hope:

  1. Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.
  2. It has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.
  3. It bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy, and satisfaction: an “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it seems to produce them from within.

Bourgeault remarks that one more quality might be added to the characteristics of mystical hope: that it is in some sense atemporal – out of time. “For some reason or another,” she says, “the experience pulls us out of the linear stream of hours and days… and imbues the moment we are actually in with an unexpected vividness and fullness. It is as if we had been transported, for the duration, into a wider field of presence, a direct encounter with Being itself.”

Thomas Merton (whom Cynthia Bourgeault also quotes here) writes:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

As Cynthia Bourgeault recognises, this awareness, whether sudden or gradual, of the “last, irreducible, secret center of the heart where God alone penetrates” (Mansur al-Hallaj) may come out of a clear blue sky as well as out of the storm. But perhaps I might be permitted to make a small observation from my own experience: it seems to be in times of absolute inner poverty, when almost all worldly satisfactions and securities have been withdrawn by pain and circumstance, when realistically there is no hope at all of the upbeat variety left, that these moments of clarity and presence most often manifest. Perhaps this is the sheer mercy of God coming to us when there is nothing else left to us, but there does seem to be one other factor involved here, and to me it seems to be crucial to understand this. Regular, faithful practice appears to be in some way essential. Now please hear me: I am not saying that practice will put us in control these moments of illumination – they are pure grace – nor that practice will somehow bring them about. But practice will open our hearts to their possibility; it will dim the incessant clamour of thought and grasping, to the point where we can glimpse the initial glimmer of that inner light, and stand still and watch.

Another point occurs to me. If we look at what I have just written about inner poverty, and the lack of satisfaction and security, and about pain and straitened circumstances, one has almost a recipe for classical asceticism, for hair shirts, hunger and scourging, for enforced celibacy and for the enclosed life. This is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the mercy of God. It may very well be that God grants to those who have nothing else to look forward to but pain and lack, these radiant glimpses of glory, but to attempt to force God’s hand by artificially producing the external conditions of divorce, disability or the concentration camp seems to me to be foolishness, to put it as charitably as I am able. But practice, the “white martyrdom” of faithful and unremitting prayer, is another matter entirely, one where the Jesus Prayer, “hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice… consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray” (Bourgeault, op cit.), seems perfectly fitted to our path, not only as a means of hesychasm, of stilling the heart, but simply as a prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


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I wrote the above text at a time when I was beginning to be seriously ill with a heart problem, and it seemed to me to be as clear an answer to my own questions as I could find. I would still stand by it today. Hope lies in the emptying of self, the abandonment of “regular hope” in the “objectless awareness” (Bourgeault) of contemplation. Perhaps Pema Chödrön (see her passage quoted in Hopeless?) has a point after all.

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