At a recent men’s retreat in I was invited to speak at in Idyllwild, one of the talks was about sacred space, sacred rest, and sacred work, and where we find inspiration. One of the questions I had included for small group discussion afterwards was a fairly standard one at these kinds of events: when do you feel most connected to God?
When my group got to this question, I realized, at least from a contemplative perspective, the question isn’t quite right. There’s something limited about it. A spiritual director once asked me a similar question about a challenging life situation: where is God in that? It felt off.
Both questions are fairly conventional ones. How do you connect to God? With the obvious follow-up invitation: to do that kind of stuff more often. “Where is God in that?” is a question after a similar kind of uniformity: don’t forget God’s around whether it feels like it or not; even when it’s hard going.
A line from Northrop Frye came to mind at the retreat: “to answer a question is to consolidate the level of thinking at which the question is asked.”
In other words, these questions carry within them certain assumptions that a straightforward answer consents to implicitly.
It takes our conventional mental infrastructure for granted.
First, there’s a “me.” I’m this little person with a name and a personal history and a personality and there’s this stuff I have and this stuff I might want to have, and sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t, but you do the best you can to experience the good stuff and minimize the bad stuff and the more time you spend connecting with God helps being a better “me” and then hopefully better stuff will happen.
It’s still egocentric thinking. It’s the type of thinking that doesn’t help transcend this small self.
I got a message from a friend after Thanksgiving who’s working two jobs to make ends meet and had a relationship come to an end recently. “It feels like everything is religion and politics and yelling and there’s so little love out there.”
The mystics live in that same reality, situated in the exact same life situations, with its competition and insults and attention grabbing and fear and anger and meanness and selfishness and noise, with one crucial difference. They’ve lifted the veil.
Nowhere in the gospels is it written that God gave the world a five-point plan for perfection so he could love it. It’s not conditional.
He saw it just as it is. He loved it just as it is. It’s this same world we’re called to love. To be loving toward, to manifest love in. Not some perfect alternative reality, but this one. With it’s absolute ridiculousness.
Yes, we exist within our life situations and have practical problems to solve all the time. But what all that stuff about “putting on the mind of Christ” or “dying to self” has to do with is along with that limited perspective of our personal situation, simultaneously seeing the big picture from a divine perspective. When a mom hears her kids fighting in the back seat about something ridiculous – a lost toy, which TV show is better – she doesn’t suddenly stop loving them.
That’s the divine gaze. Indiscriminate love even in the face of ridiculousness.
The small self can’t do any of this. It wants love, but on its own terms. It wants to stay in control, make sure its needs get met.
Of course we still have our preferences and points of view and communities and causes we participate in. But we don’t overidentify with those and turn them into obstacles for that divine perspective, which always transcends dualisms and oppositional thinking. It doesn’t need an other or an enemy to have an identity.
The process of shifting from default awareness of a “me” over here and a God over there as a subject-object relationship (or, heck, even that theologian’s favorite I-Thou relationship) takes time for most, and a degree of subtlety about ourselves. How do we tend to operate? What do we tend to turn into a favorite resentment or point of contention? What do we love to be insulted by? Where does our judgmental mind start kicking in?
A danger of trying to become a loving person, for example, is to add that to our list of egoic identifiers. When we’re not seen how we want to be seen it’s a blow to the ego and triggers whatever our habit response to that situation is. “I’ve worked hard to become a very loving person and I’m gonna be pissed if anyone says otherwise!”
Author Stephan Bodian sheds some light on the dynamics as a part of this shift:
“When you awaken, you realize that the separate self you took yourself to be is just a construct, a mental fabrication—a collection of thoughts, feelings, memories, beliefs, and stories that have been woven together by the mind into the appearance of a substantial, continuous someone with certain abiding qualities and characteristics. By freeing you from the identification with the separate self, this awakening liberates you from the burdens and concerns, worries and regrets, limitations and preoccupations that the person bearing your name has accumulated over a lifetime. But this construct has extraordinary tenacity, and it generally won’t give up without a prolonged struggle to stay in control.”
When we start this process we lift the veil on all of reality, the egoic veil that keeps us and everyone else trapped in our own mental preoccupations and mental categories that keep us separated from each other. That becomes a block to loving awareness.
Letting go of this construct is part of what the New Testament authors call dying to self. And it’s part of our ongoing process of transformation.
First the death, then the rebirth. Where’s God in that? In every atom. At every moment.
Center for Contemplation and Action on Letting Go of the False Self
Thomas Keating on how The Ego Gets In The Way
Stephan Bodian’s Book Wake Up Now
Free mini-course on Walking With The Christian Mystics