Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The journey begins...

When I was very little, I tugged at my mother’s sleeve and asked her to watch me jump. “Look,” I said excitedly, “I am leaving the planet!” “Yes, dear,” she replied, without much interest. I can still remember my feeling of frustration that I could not make her see what I had seen. Of course, I was not intending to go far, but to jump six inches off the earth and be pulled back by gravity is still to leave the surface. All that is needed is to extend the distance some more, and I could be walking among the stars.

At the age of fourteen, the philosophical part of my brain took another leap. In amongst all the other dawning realizations, at the heart of my search for “something worthy of belief”, was a discovery that completely blew the ground from under materialism. What is consciousness? I don’t mean, what causes it, but what is it made of? It obviously isn’t made of matter. Once again, I simply could not get anyone else to see this fact the way I saw it. “Oh yes,” they might say politely, humouring me; “of course.” But if they had truly understood what I was saying the world would have been transformed for them, as it had been for me. The point is this. Normally we take consciousness for granted, and we do our thinking about the stuff that is in our consciousness, the stuff we are conscious of. The world is out there: it is what is revealed to us by our senses. But try to stop thinking that way for a minute. That very awareness, the experience itself, whether we are awake or dreaming, whether we are seeing clearly or not, is itself a thing. True, it is a strange kind of thing, because it is that in which everything else is located for us. But it is just as real as everything else, if not more so.

I was like a fish discovering the ocean, an eyeball looking into itself, a mirror face-to-face with another mirror. Materialism could not be true, because it had missed the most important and obvious thing, the one thing that could not be doubted. Then I opened the books of the mystics….

Picture: "Trampoline" by Rose-Marie Caldecott

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Unknown God

Pope Benedict XVI recently announced a new kind of religious dialogue. “Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue,” he said, “there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.” 

One might also and equally speak of the “Unknown Self”, for we do not know ourselves, and the two Unknowns go hand in hand. It has been said that “Unless you know yourself you cannot know God” – and there is an article by Dom Sylvester Houedard which explores this point in detail. Not that God is the self. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in chapter 5 of Orthodoxy, “Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within…. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” 

Brahman may be Atman, but Atman is not what we normally call the “self”. The true self is something very different. But the true self is in God, and this means we can only discover them together. When we know God with God’s own knowledge of himself, then we shall also know ourselves. “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor 13:9-12). 

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Who am I?

I might spend a lifetime trying to find out who I am. But if I simply look inside myself, I am looking in the wrong place.

“By comparison with God, man’s identity is not simply in himself but outside himself, which is why he can only attain it by ‘transcendence’. The Christian believer discovers his true identity in him who, as ‘the firstborn of all creation’, holds all things together (Col. 1:15ff), with the result that we can say that our life is hidden with him in God (Col. 3:3). Through identification with Christ I discover my own entirely personal identity.” –Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986, p. 29).

But then how do I discover Christ? Didn’t he die many years ago and go back to heaven? Do I have to rely on biblical scholars and archaeologists to work out which passages in the Gospels are most authentic? Ratzinger replies: “We cannot reach Christ through historical reconstruction. It may be helpful, but it is not sufficient and, on its own, becomes mere necrophilia. We encounter him as a living Person only in the foretaste of his presence which is called ‘Church’.” 

And this provides an unexpected bridge to the spiritualities of Asia – of Buddhism and Hinduism – that understand God as the “ground of all being”. Ratzinger goes on: “At this point we begin to see how it may be possible to purify and accept the inheritance of Asia. The latter is correct in refusing to see individual identity as an encapsulated ‘I’ over against a similarly encapsulated ‘Thou’ of God, ignoring the existence of other ‘I’s which are themselves related individually and separately to this divine Thou.” This ill-conceived personalism “deprives God of his infinity and excludes each individual ‘I’ from the unity of being.”

Illustration: "The Light of the World", by William Holman Hunt, 1854.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Unity in the soul

I said the key to the religious quest is unity, which is how we become fully real, and that this unification can only be brought about by love.

That makes sense of the idea of sin - viewed not as the breaking of some arbitrary rule, but as an obstacle to our own spiritual progress. The modern world doesn’t like to talk of sin, but it still views hypocrisy as a great evil, and seems to admire integrity. Sin is that which divides us. It is that which divides us from ourselves, from God, and from each other.

Charles Williams defined sin as “the preference of an immediately satisfying experience of things to the believed pattern of the universe”. For example, each time I do something in private that is inconsistent with what I profess to be and believe in public, or which would make others think less of me if it were discovered, I am dividing myself, and therefore committing a sin.

The root of sin is a conflict of desires, since it is desire that leads me to act inconsistently. But this conflict only exists at the level where we have many desires. In the end, at the deepest level, we desire only one thing, and that is union with the Infinite, with God. Human desires are insatiable, because we are built to desire the Infinite, and we cannot find the Infinite in the realm of the finite. The purpose of a religious practice is to discover our true self, which is also the discovery of our desire for the Infinite. Everything else is either a distraction from that, or a sacrament of it. Everything else is “intermediate”.

This is precisely why the Eucharist is so powerful and necessary for us, if we can receive it in faith. It feeds our body-soul-spirit unity. Swallowing the Host, knowing what it is, we take into ourselves a kind of “magnet” that helps to draw our divided selves together into one Self.

More on the dynamics of the Eucharist another time.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Purity of heart

Our human “problem” was defined very neatly by Father Vincent Nagel, a Palestinian Christian, in a meditation printed in Magnificat for the 9th of March, looking at the reasons people have for acting as they do. “The problem is that we only have one heart, and in the end it can be attached only to one thing.” Most of us behave well and act piously merely so that others will think well of us. We are not really attached to God, but to our own image. “We have had our reward,” then, in this world, and cannot receive it in the next. That is why Jesus tells us to pray in secret, so that people cannot see us, but “your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). 

Jesus also tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that only the “pure in heart” will see God, which is how we describe the ultimate achievement of our life’s purpose in perfect happiness. But what is purity of heart? According to Soren Kierkegaard, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing”. If we investigate this notion a bit further, we find it provides the key to understanding the religious impulse. In The One and the Many, W. Norris Clarke SJ writes of Unity “as a positive energy by which each being actively coheres within itself holding its parts together – if it has any – in a dynamic, self-unifying act” (p. 63). This goes for atoms, it goes for living organisms, it goes for people. It even goes for God, where the “active divine energy of love that is the bond of unity between Father and Son” is the Holy Spirit. 

Here is the lesson we can draw from this rather abstract idea: “to be anything real it is necessary to be one, integrated.” Religion is the striving for unity in the soul. This enables us to see the grain of truth in Gurdjieff’s teaching, because as Clarke says, “the unity of what is called our psychological ‘personality’ is not given to us ready-made. It is something we must work at and achieve by our own conscious action.” The transformation we are seeking is a unification of ourselves, such that we are no longer composed of bits pulling in different directions (Romans 7: “the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do”). Achieving such an integrated personality seems impossible. To this, Jesus replies, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew19:26). Clarke answers that we must be unified by “one great love”. 

Unity; “one-pointedness”; integrity; purity of heart; being “true” to ourselves. All these words and phrases refer to the same thing. Buddhism speaks of “mindfulness”. We can only become happy by becoming real, and we become real by becoming one. The missing element is “grace”. That is the thing or force that enables us to be transformed, to become real. We call it “becoming holy” or becoming a saint. Grace is “gift”, the help of the “Higher Power” as AA puts it. Grace is everywhere available from a loving God to anyone who opens himself or herself to receive it. That is the point of the sacraments – not that they automatically make us holy, but that through them, if we are receptive, we can obtain the grace we need.

Illustration: "Prayer Without End" by Nicholas Maes (1656), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Lost Christianity?

Prof. Jacob Needleman once wrote a book called Lost Christianity. The thesis was that Christianity tells us a great deal about what we should become, but no longer gives us the means to change. How do we get there from here? How can we be expected to live a faith and a morality that is so difficult, so demanding? Most of the Christians you meet are no better than anyone else, and many are worse. There must be some secret teachings, passed on by Jesus to his closest disciples, which the official Church has forgotten or suppressed. Maybe these are still preserved in some remote monastery. Needleman claimed to have discovered these lost teachings, the missing “intermediate Christianity”, with the help of Father Sylvan, a Christian monk. As he puts it in the new Introduction to to the book, what is missing is the “experience of oneself” or “presence to oneself” without which true contrition and purity are impossible.

There is something deeply true about this, and we need to get to the bottom of it. The reader should know, however, that behind the fictional Father Sylvan lies Needleman’s own teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, whose teachings revolve around the need to acquire an immortal soul (not all of us have one) through conscious work on oneself. The key is “self-remembering”. There is a wonderful phrase of P.D. Ouspensky, one of G.’s disciples: “Suddenly I remembered that I had forgotten to remember myself.” But the intensification of self-consciousness (if that is what this is – and perhaps it isn’t: we’ll come back to that question another time) is almost the opposite of Christianity, and in some of G.’s followers (not all) it can lead to an immense arrogance. There is another answer, and in the next posts I intend to speak of it.

Saturday, 19 March 2011


It is remarkable how often we assume we know something simply because we have heard people talk about it. Years may go by, and then we suddenly realize that we never really understood what they were on about. That may happen at any level or stage of our lives. It happens to children, but it also happens to adults, no matter how educated or distinguished they may be. It happens to all of us, because it is part of the process by which we grow.

In the case of Christianity, there is no shame in admitting that we do not understand the least thing about it. It appears to us at times like an ideology, a system of thought and ideas that can be learnt and mastered like any other. I can inform myself about its tenets, I can decide between the various interpretations on offer, and I may or may not decide to accept it. But none of this is really Christianity: it is a human invention designed to take the place of Christianity. Christianity actually is a relationship not with an idea, but with a person – Jesus Christ. The reason we do not understand Christianity is that we understand neither Christ nor what it means to be in relationship with him. 

The need for ongoing catechesis in the mysteries of Christ and of the Church, a catechesis traditionally known as mystagogia (“initiation into the mysteries”), has been noted in Church circles for years. Baptism and Confirmation may only be given once; initiation is a continuing adventure, since the grace of the sacraments is the source of a new life that must continue to grow if it is not to wither and die.

See also THIS POST on Mystagogy over on my other blog.

Dear unknown friend...

The search for truth takes us in many unexpected directions. In my case, growing up I never expected to become a Roman Catholic. On these pages I intend to continue searching, with anyone who wants to accompany me, for the meaning of Christian teachings, and their relation to the truths revealed and proposed in other religious traditions. Some of these posts reflect the content of my books on mystagogy and spiritual theology. The first was called The Seven Sacraments: Entering the Mysteries of God (listed here, along with links to reviews and additional material, written later, that may be helpful to readers). The second book is published by Angelico Press and Sophia Perennis under the title All Things Made New. The third, from Angelico Press, is The Radiance of Being (2013). A complete list of my books can be found here.

I hope that these web pages will be helpful to readers of these books and others interested in going more deeply into the Christian experience. Please make it known to your friends and visit regularly if you find it helpful. All rights are reserved. You may also be interested in my other blogs: Beauty in Education (originally based around the book Beauty for Truth's Sake and its sequel Beauty in the Word) and The Economy Project (a legacy of my time at Plater College and associated with a website devoted to Catholic Social Teaching).

Stratford Caldecott

The image on the blog header is a detail from the ceiling above the Shrine of Our Lady of Oxford, at the Oratory, photographed by Revd James Bradley and used with kind permission. The following verse is from "Jesu, joy of man's desiring", and seems appropriate for the image. Our Lady of Oxford, pray for us...

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hear what peaceful music rings;
Where the flocks in you confiding
Drink of joy from endless springs!
Theirs is beauty's fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom's holiest treasure;
You do ever lead your own,
In the love of joys unknown.