For my lectio recently I’ve been praying the story of the creation. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.
Sitting with these words, allowing them to reverberate in the silence of my heart, I know that that beginning, formless and void, was a time when there was only God. God with God, God loving God. No separation. Like the time between conception and birth when mother and child share the same heartbeat and the same breath. Or like the moment of union in sex, when not only is one body joined to another, but two souls become one as well.
As I’ve continued to pray that text, moving on to the creation of the heavens and the earth, of birds and fish and plants, that dawning knowledge has brightened. The creation is the natural overflow of God loving God, as new life is the natural overflow of two lovers joining. From the union of God with God has come the birth of all that is.
At the same time I’ve been praying in this way, I’ve also been immersing myself in Celtic spirituality. Although it’s difficult to piece together what the ancient Celts believed and taught, there is no doubt of their love for the creation. From that love, Celtic spirituality affirms that God did not, as Roman orthodoxy would claim, create from nothing. Rather, God poured her very substance out to make everything that is. Jesus’ Incarnation, although a full and unique disclosure of God, is not the only incarnation. We are all manifestations of God’s flesh, made of God, as are the trees and the birds and the river.
In that sense, nothing much has changed from the dawn of time. There is still only God dwelling with God, although the fullness of that reality remains veiled from us much of the time.
Friday at dinner we heard this passage from Mary Rose O’Reilley’s The Barn at the End of the World:
After a day in the garden, I asked Robin to explain (again) photosynthesis to me. I can’t take in this business of eating light and turning it into stem and thorn and flower …
I would not call this meditation, sitting in the back garden. Maybe I would call it eating light. Mystical traditions recognize two kinds of practice: apophatic mysticism, which is the dark surrender of Zen, the Via Negativa of John of the Cross, and kataphatic mysticism, less well defined: an openhearted surrender to the beauty of creation. Maybe Francis of Assisi was, on the whole, a kataphatic mystic, as was Thérèse of Lisieux in her exuberant moments: but the fact is, kataphatic mysticism has low status in religious circles. Francis and Thérèse were made, really made, any mother superior will let you know, in the dark night of their lives: no more of this throwing off your clothes and singing songs and babbling about the shelter of God’s arms.
When I was twelve and had my first menstrual period, my grandmother took me aside and said, “Now your childhood is over. You will never really be happy again.” That is pretty much how some spiritual directors treat the transition from kataphatic to apophatic mysticism.
But, I’m sorry. I’m going to sit here everyday the sun shines and eat this light. Hung in the bell of desire. (66-67)
O’Reilley confirms my own intuitions about prayer and mysticism (which is just a fancy word for communion with God). We make too much of the separation between the apophatic and kataphatic. We humans seem to have two experiences of God: God dwelling in light unapproachable, whom we can never fully know, and God who reveals herself to us in the sweetness of birdsong, the warmth of human touch, and the play of light on water. Of course both of these experiences speak to a truth about God and also about us. But ultimately, they’re not different experiences, and they lead to the same place.
More and more I find these distinctions hindrances to the life of faith. I notice this weariness with distinctions most in my emotional and spiritual struggles. Despite “knowing” better, I still see my struggles as obstacles to be overcome. But what if they’re not obstacles? What if, instead, my struggles are simply another current in the flow of God loving God?
I have heard Zen meditation described as a gradual ascent. You begin at the street level, where traffic jams and the incessant noise of life distract and aggravate. As you begin to practice, you move up a few floors so that you can watch the traffic moving below you, although the noise may still distract and aggravate. Eventually, you find yourself on the rooftop of a tall building, where you can look at the traffic patterns and see a beautiful chaos. At that point, you move back down to the street level, back into the marketplace, but with an entirely different experience of it than you had before.
I find this vision compelling, because it is so ordered and progressive. I would so love for the spiritual life to be like that. But my experience of life, spiritual or otherwise, is nothing like the ordered progression of an elevator from floor to floor. Instead my practice draws me into the middle of the marketplace, not to get a better perspective on the chaos, aggravation, and noise, but to see those elements as practice, or a big part of it. To eat the light of ordinary, messy struggle, and to grow stem and flower from it.
Karl Rahner describes God as “the prodigal who squanders himself.” This phrase has become a touchstone for me. God loving God, God pouring herself out into the creation, into you and me, holding nothing back. And I’m meant to do the same thing, to keep the flow going, not to withdraw into a tower to gain perspective, but rather to find the tower in the middle of the chaotic marketplace. To find the union of the apophatic and kataphatic. That’s the practice. Not only to sit everyday the sun shines and eat this light, but to sit in the darkest dark and still to know and eat the light.
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