The Mystery at the Heart of Life and Being

Something larger than we are flows within us, through us, around us. The connection is stronger, clearer, deeper, in some times and places than in others. In some times and places, there is a veritable YES! coursing through us in response to our life experience. It may be the birth of a child, or making love with your life’s true mate, or walking through a foggy morning in wet woods… An encounter with some form of goodness, beauty, and/or, truth will do it every time (and, the truth doesn’t have to be either good or beautiful—the awesome, destructive terror of an earthquake, or volcano, can work as well).

The shift from “here” to “there” can happen anywhere, any time, but not everywhere, all the time. While transcendent reality is never more than a perspective shift away, some life experiences compel/enable us to make that shift more easily than others. The sense of holy presence—the encounter with numinous reality—is occasioned by experiences that bring us fully into the present moment, and focus us intently on this time, this place. James Joyce referred to this experience as “aesthetic arrest,” and Joseph Campbell talked about the event occasioning the experience as being “transparent to transcendence.”

The transcendent is concealed in, and revealed by, the imminent. Whatever awakens us, and enables us to be fully, deeply, alive, opening us to the wonder of the moment of our present experience, connects us with the divine. If we want to “find God,” we can do no better than by exposing ourselves to the goodness, truth and beauty of our life experience—or, as some have said, by giving ourselves an experience of beauty through art, music and nature.

Another avenue into the presence of That Which Has Always Been Called God is the contemplation/exploration of symbols that are alive for us, connecting us with metaphors that suggest/imply more than can be told of what words cannot say. One way of working with symbols is to place a frame around anything. People use photography to frame various aspects of lived experience, and that is one approach to take: Take a picture!

Or just pretend to have taken a picture! Imagine setting a rock, or a tree, or a person apart for your own personal engagement, and open yourself to the full experience of what you have framed as “That Which Has Come (like the Buddha) Thus So.” Everything so considered connects us with everything. There is something and not nothing! The astounding nature of that realization opens the way to our own experience of “aesthetic arrest” before the mysterium tremendum–the awe-inspiring mystery beyond the grasp of logic and reason.

A second way of using symbols as the connective tissue with the divine is to explore which symbols have the ability to stir something within us–what is symbolic to us of more than words can say? Joseph Campbell suggested that when we have found a symbol that moves us, or calls to us, we should live with it seeking to realize “Of what is it the metaphor?” To what does the symbol refer? Campbell said, “You need to find what the reference of the symbol is. When that is found, you will have the elucidation.”

When we begin seeking the source of our own inner stirring, we will be setting ourselves on a path in which, using the words of the old Alchemists, “One book opens another.” We will think we are looking for a symbols reference, and we will be led into the Field of Wonder where everything is  doorway to something else, and we will discover the amazing truth that Heraclitus articulated centuries ago: “Traveling on every path, you will not find the boundaries of soul by going, so deep is its measure.” And the game is on!

A third approach to symbols is to simply sit quietly and see what arises in the silence. The silence is an ever-present contact point with amazement in that our Unconscious Mind (So called because we are not conscious of it) has access to us there because we are free from “the noise of the 10,000 things,” and can be open to the world seeking us just as we are seeking it.

Sit quietly, watching, waiting, for the things that come to us unbidden in the silence. They might come as images, impressions, urges, occurrences–inviting reflection/realization or serving as calls to action, perhaps with an urgency about it that cannot be denied or ignored–leading us into adventures we would never think up on our own.

Parker Palmer calls these places of encounter with more than words can say, “thin places,” where the invisible world shines through into the visible world of normal, apparent reality, and illumines those with eyes to see in a way they never forget. The knowledge of God, to the extent that the unknowable can be known, begins with the experience of God—and how can we live without experiencing God? That Which Has Always Been Called God is hiding in plain sight, on every side, all the time!

To experience God is to know God, but in a way that cannot be communicated. We cannot explain what we know, or say what we have experienced. Yet, the experience of God, of knowing God through direct, personal experience with transcendent reality, can lead to the alignment of our life with God, to living the life of God, so that, along with Jesus and Paul, we can say “The Father and I are one,” “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”–with “Christ” understood, not as the literal, unique, one and only, “Son of God come to atone for the sins of the world,” but as the God-within-us-all.  The God we experience as being “out there,” can, with that shift in perspective, be understood as the source of life, and light, and peace, “in here” and, through the way we live, “out there,” coming to life by the way we live in the world, being incarnated in our lives as was the case in Jesus’ life.

We need to spend less time talking about theology, debating the doctrines and studying the Bible, and more time placing ourselves in the path of experiences of numinous reality through art, music and nature. That is the surest path to knowing God, and living as God in the world, because the knowledge of God is hardly an exact science. Theologians like to speak with the voice of absolute authority, but we all feel our way along here. We say more than we can possibly know. We engage the Mystery, and then proceed to explain it—or, more likely, we never engage the Mystery, someone explains it to us, and tells us to believe what they say.

Someone catches a glimpse of the transcendent source of life, being and value, and draws up a chart of the organizational structure of the universe in outline form, including a time line for handy reference, and hands it out to be memorized, and recited to all people as the way of saving the world. A 3.5 second experience of holiness is good for a lifetime of logical extrapolation and rational deduction. Never mind that God is quickly lost in our explanations of God. The two are one in the minds of those pushing their idea of God, and they will be glad to tell us that it is so.

The first thing we can say about the Mystery is that it is impossible to say anything of substance about the Mystery. The second thing we can say is that whatever we say has to respect and maintain the mysteriousness of the Mystery. We don’t know anything of it beyond our experience of it. How it is structured, whether it has preferences, if it has a plan, and what it does on its days off, we don’t know. Beyond the experience itself, we make it all up.

If we are going to make it all up, and it would be helpful to do so from as broad a base as possible. It would be helpful to acknowledge that we have no business making it all up on our own, alone, cut off from all the others who have made, and are making, it all up. No one has the last word. One person’s guess is as good as another’s. That being the case, lay all the words, and all the guesses, from all the traditions through the ages, out on the table, and get as large a picture as possible regarding who we all think, and have thought, God is. Listen to the traditions, and let each person be drawn to that which rings true to them.

Listening to the traditions led Aldos Huxley to formulate “the perennial philosophy,” a compilation, of sorts, of the common points of a wide number of views of God—but, there is nothing sacrosanct about Huxley’s list. Different writers emphasize different things. The important point is to have a view of God that takes into account other views of God, and sees that our view of God is not to be confused with, or taken for, God. Our idea of God is not God, and Meister Eckhart said, “The highest, greatest, and final leave-taking is leaving God for God”!

God is beyond all views of God. Mystery is the ground of life, being and value. The source is essentially unknown and unknowable. And, yet, there is the ache, the urge, to draw close to God, to live aligned with the way of God, so that our heart beats in sync with the heart of Mystery, and our soul is at-one with the Soul of all that is, and has been, and will be, visible and invisible, worlds without end.

We live with the Mystery, and with the yearning for the Mystery, knowing that we do not know what we long to know, yet, living toward our best guess regarding who God is, and who God would have us be in each situation as it arises. In this, there can be no separation between knowing, doing and being.

As we live toward what we think we know of God, we incorporate God-like-ness into our way with life, and deepen our knowledge of God. We live into the Mystery of God—we do not think our way there. And, when we talk about what we know of the Mystery, our words sound like nonsense to those who don’t know what we are talking about, who have had no experience of the Mystery, and do not know whereof we speak. We can but speak in paradoxes and riddles, and are of no help to the unknowing ones.

“Take up your cross,” says Jesus, “and follow me.” That’s the directive. That’s the map. That’s the explanation. Dying to our idea of God even as we strive to follow God. As Martin Palmer would say, “The path that can be discerned as a path is not a reliable path! And, the God that can be discerned as God is not a reliable God. If we want to know God, we have to live in ways that are as God-like as we can manage, and the Mystery will unfold before us, one step at a time.

Of course, this is the hardest thing we will ever do, because we cannot be “born anew” without dying. Resurrection hinges upon our willingness to die. We die literally when we cease to breathe, and that happens only once. We die metaphorically when we move beyond one way of life into another–beyond one idea/realization to another. I expand Meister Eckhard’s insight quoted above to say, “The second highest, greatest, and next-to last leave-taking is leaving our life for our Life!

How we work that out tells the tale. But, we don’t get to the final chapter without passing through the next-to-last one, and the one before that.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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