Monday, June 11, 2007

III The Human Experience of God at Turning Points: A Theological Expose of Spiritual Counterfeits

[With apologies that the version of Blogger for Mac doesn't do accents or even italic]

The failure to nurture conversion occurs just as often on a one-on-one basis as on an institutional one, and too often so-called spiritual directors assisting someone’s conversion process panic, or grow bored or, worst of all, refuse the necessary suffering-with, and leave the directee floundering, or even in a psychiatric ward. There are experiences of God that mimic psychosis, but they are rare, and we have only to look at poets like Cowper and Christopher Smart to know profound religious sanity, though condemned by society as mad. They had the humilty and wisdom to discern that while God was surely in their often terrifying experiences, their experiences were not God.

With these factors in mind, it is impossible not to be aware that someone intent on profound, permanent and continuing conversion should be prepared for a long and solitary uphill journey, swimming against the current all the way. People willingly undergoing profound transformation scare other people to death, in whatever context they are found, for the need and willingness to change implies failure by society and the system on some level and, “how can one live through this when western culture is geared toward success?”

The people who do persevere in their ordinary, mysterious way, reflect the God whom we know as the inviolable vulnerability of Love who indwells us most particularly as we free-fall into transfiguration, guided only by the coordinates of grace. But having said that, there are still Eco’s observations. There are still the toys called “Transformers”; there is still a disproportionate fascination with technology that fails, technology both material and religious; technology that, given too high a priority, offers us a secular answer to the religious question. We need to remember that religion sometimes can be a help on the way, but is not itself the way.

Conversion has often been illuminated by the symbols of the desert and the city. In the story of Abraham’s journey, indeed, in all of the Bible we see the recurring human temptation to settle for sterile surrogates for God, represented by the city, instead of the fecundity that can arise only from unknowing, represented by the desert. I would like now to try to go beneath these familiar symbols in order to explore some of their foundational notions and illustrate the human experience of turning points, in which occur the most profound experiences of God.

If the responsive equipoise of conversion is in fact the goal without polarity—we should not think of it as a static point—then what are we turning from and what are we turning to? The vision of God which draws us, like God’s promises to Abraham, can be glimpsed only from afar. Each time we think we draw closer, the vision presents a new aspect and context, the mirage that stood between us and it dissolves, and we are left always at a new square one. If, like Abraham, we seek surrogates, to live without paradox, we are tempted to turn aside from the true vision and settle for one seeming aspect of God on to which we clamp as firmly as possible. Having succumbed to this temptation, when we carefully unclench our fingers to peek at what we have caught, we discover we have killed it, or that our hand is empty after all.

This is the story of Sodom, of course, that mordant satire on the idolatry of the great shopping mall at the end of the Dead Sea, the consumer culture that can inculturate religion only as commodity by attempting to grasp an aspect of God. This consumer parable is told in a sexual metaphor with all the resonances of the multiple meanings of the verb to know ranging from wisdom to sexual intercourse and rape, and all the paradoxes that we have seen throughout the Abraham saga of knowing that produces sterile surrogates which must be cast aside for fecund unknowing. We can follow this knowing/unknowing theme right down through pseudo-Denys, Eckhart, and Lady Julian to those who are picking through the smoking ruins of the Enlightenment, trying to figure out what went wrong.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about those people who get stuck during a conversion process or who maybe don't persevere? What if you're caught in a spiritual black hole, an abyss, and you don't feel yourself falling into the hands of God? It occurs to me I may come to your blog for reflection and direction because I am lost and your words are full of wisdom. If I must abandon this, then what?

11:00 pm, June 27, 2007  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Perhaps the key word here is "feel"...

Our culture puts so much emphasis on the tangible, the felt, which is OK as far as it goes, but while feelings must be paid attention to, they are not an indicator (pace, Ignatius) of our spiritual state.

It is a perilous thing to say, perhaps, but those who feel caught in an abyss, a "spiritual black hole" are closer than thos who don't to realizing what already is: that they are in the hand of God, that they share God's very nature.

Our end is our beginning. We start in union with God; the spiritual path of faith is realizing this in our lives so that it is the wellspring from which we live our ordinary round.

Words are helpful; stillness, silence are helpful; yes, we must gently, continually return our heart to its focus, but the reality lies deeper than any of these, and is already inscribed in us. We have only to open to receive it in the dark night of faith, whatever our feelings may be.

It's not a matter of either/or, but both/and. Nothing is wasted. Nothing.

12:53 am, June 28, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

tears, tears and more tears (which I know is a subject near and dear to your heart).

thank you for your kind response.

2:14 pm, June 28, 2007  

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