Going deeper towards the emptiness...

Fr. Thomas Keating, mentor of the Centering Prayer movement, once wrote that the goal of feeling centered in a deep inner rest with God is never the goal of the inward journey: consolation is a nice experience, but truly resting in God is destination.  He went on, therefore, to note that often when people begin to pray in this Western mystical way they first experience a sense of renewal and hope. And they are elated: how wonderful to feel intimately embraced by the Lord.  And I agree - it is sweet - but what happens when the feelings end?  What happens when we inevitably come down off the mountain into the valley of the shadow of death? 

Do we quit?  Do we conclude that God has abandoned us?  Do we only go inward to feel better and then rush on to something else when the feelings become empty or hard?  If yes, then our inner journey is more like the opiate Marx described and we're spiritual addicts frantic for our next fix.  I've done this - and maybe so have you - it is natural.
That is why Fr. Keating urges us to continue to practice centering prayer - learning to move past the initial loss of what we think of as God's sweet intimacy - in order that we might actually come to rest and trust God's presence beyond our feelings. This is a spiritual commitment beyond our capacity to either comprehend or control.  Authentic rest, not spiritual consolation, is the goal.  And such a distinction is clearly a minority report in contemporary Western Christianity. Is it too harsh to suggest that often we are either addicted to "sloppy agape" (as one of my seminary profs put it) or we're frantic with anxiety? 

I know that every generation must move forward in faith with fear and trembling - and there are some beautiful things happening in our world - but the dominant paradigm of our generation seems to be the polar opposite of the mature disciples St. Paul (or his emissary) spoke about in Ephesians 4:

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman suggest that in our quest to overcome the lack of emotional affect born of the 1950s "organization man" - and the absence of a clear and strong father born of the industrial revolution - our 1960s/70s culture has created a "sibling society" that overcompensates.  The result is that we become a group of wounded, emotional junkies.  No one is an adult - nobody is mommy or daddy - and everybody is a child.  No one takes responsibility for making hard decisions - pain is somebody else's fault rather than a hard fact of life - and the goal is to have others take care of us because life is just too hard. 

As one reviewer put it: "Bly and Woodman make the case that we have neglected our elders and abandoned our children to become a horizontal, sibling society of adolescents attempting to raise each other." Wynton Marsalis says much the same thing in his small book on jazz, On Higher Ground:

Jazz insists on the undisputed sovereignty of the human being... and the arts let us know who we are in all our glory and reveal the best of who we are. All the political and financial might in the world is diminished when put to the service of an impoverished cultural agenda. And we see this in our schools, in our homes and in our world profile: rich and fat, lazy and morally corrupt with wild, out of control young people. 

This seems to be part of the human condition and religion often encourages the quest for security rather than deep inner peace.  Enter the disturbing story of Job in the Hebrew Bible. Here an older Babylonian myth about a good man in the best sense of the word is reframed by Jewish sages sometime between the 6th and 4th century BCE as an alternative to the quest for religious security. For most of the story, Job eats it - he endures and prays, he wonders and frets about his agony until finally he explodes at the Lord with a fury fueled by anger, hurt and fear.

That is, he acknowledges in his soul that within the Sacred there is chaos as well as order - there is a power within the Holy that is not just beautiful but also terrifying - there is meaning in life as well as the abyss.  And when Job embraces this in his own flesh... 

I like the way poet Stephen Mitchell expresses Job's reaction when he writes: "The Book of Job is the great poem of moral outrage. It gives voice to every accusation against God and its blasphemy is cathartic.  How liberating it feels NOT to be a good, patient little God-fearer, scuffling from one's hole in the wall to squeak out a dutiful hymn of praise. Job's own voice has freed him so that he can move from the curses of his first speech to the final self-affirmation his own attorney for the defense."

As the story continues eventually God responds to Job - mostly with questions - questions as vast as all of creation and outer space combined - questions as like a voice from out of a whirlwind.  Again Mitchell is instructive:

Now take note: this is a truly different religious vision than the one of Genesis One where humankind is given dominion over all creatures, yes? In Genesis One the world is an ordered and beautiful place. Job tells us, however, that yes there is order, but only up to a point. So Job wants us to see from a "God's-eye view of creation before man, beyond good and evil, marked by the innocence of a mind that has stepped outside the circle of human values... this is in contrast, too, to the peaceable kingdom of First Isaiah where the wolf lies down with the lamb." (Mitchell, p. xx)

What Job points towards, you see, is what Keating encourages, too:  learning to rest fully in the totality of God - the joy and the sorrow, the peace and the agony, the order and the chaos - all beyond our feelings.  How does Jesus put it in the Sermon on the Mount?  "I want you to live as children of your father who is in heaven who makes the sun shine on both the evil and the good, the just and the unjust?"  God is more vast and powerful than our imaginations can take in...

Job accepts - he does not surrender or submit but accepts in maturity - that the way of the Lord goes beyond our child-like quest for order. Job rests in the complexity of God - he has faced down the emptiness - he has lived through his dark night as well as his agony - and knows from the inside out that it is as real as his joy and blessings.  And this is where he finds the ability to enter Sabbath rest. God truly is other in ways that we can only accept as the Serenity Prayer invites.

From this... vision, the idea that there are accidents or victims is an optical illusion. This statement may seem cruel. Certainly it is a difficult statement. How could it not be? Paradise isn't handed out like a piece of cake at a Sunday school picnic. But the statement is not cruel. It is the opposite of cruel. Once the personal will is surrendered, future and past disappear, the morning stars burst out singing and the deep will, contemplating the world it has created says:  Behold it is very good."

Fifteen years ago a woman asked me while I was being interviewed for ministry in Tucson, "Do you know how to help me become an adult of God?  I know all about being a child, but how about being an adult of the Lord?"  Job and his radical acceptance is key.


Black Pete said…
I would add the caveat that Job's request was not childlike, unless a request for accountability and justice is inherently childlike.

This tale shows forth God's brutality, and ought not to be sugar-coated, in my view. It is a terrific antidote, or rather counterbalance, to the God of love view that is so currently pervasive in Christianity.

That said, I agree with the powerful description of Job's strength of character in this--he was an adult throughout, albeit a damaged one.

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