No thing at all

Over the last few months I have written little. If I am honest, I should have to say that this has not been because I have had nothing to say, so much as that I had run out of words.

Over the long years of my Christian contemplative practice – from the age of thirty, maybe – I was able to draw on the deep well of Christian iconography, theology, the Bible itself, for words and images to tell myself about the journey I was on; words which I could readily share. Since then it has been more difficult, much more difficult. I am not a Buddhist. Despite my great respect for Buddhism’s 2,500 years of spiritual and psychological research and development, and my love for many Buddhist writers classical and contemporary, their words do not on the whole “do it for me” in the way that the Christian tradition so often has.

Nonetheless, despite a couple of abortive attempts to return to formal, organised religion, and despite nearly a year of trying to live out a kind of “churchless Christianity”, I could not with any intellectual honesty understand myself as Christian any longer. The central myths were just that, and their power, their numinosity, had gone with that realisation. The faith that is indistinguishable from community, from the gathered people (ekklēsia) that is the church, simply no longer functioned as a descriptor for where I found myself.

Increasingly, despite (or because of) my subsequent unwavering practice of broadly vipassana-based meditation, I felt lost, my heart clogged with the dust of broken words, dry and hollowed out. I had no idea who I was any more.

It came to the point where all I could do was cry out (to whom?) in the cold hours before dawn, that I was lost, so lost. No maps I knew showed this desert place, wherever it was, and besides, my compass no longer worked. In this condition, tired out, I fell asleep.

When I awoke, light poured through the window across the bed. I was light myself, empty and crystal clear. No, I was not. I, was not; except that there was a gossamer memory that knew itself as me, someone who had, effectively, died in the night. “All there is is oneness. The unknown. No-thing appearing as it appears. It is already whole. It is already complete. That which seems to be missing – wholeness – is not lost.” (Andreas Müller)

That phrase, no thing, was all that was left of language that morning. (It is a phrase that has been with me, resonant and entirely resistant to explanation, for many years.) I cannot possibly describe the freedom, the irresistible joy that was left where I had been.

Since, the joy and the freedom have not dimmed. The gossamer memory of me still seems to function perfectly well as a way to get around in the phenomenal world, but it is no longer convincing. It is as transparent as glass. I so love all that is, even if it is no thing. Especially as it is no thing.

What happened? I don’t know. Of course I don’t. What happened is not the kind of thing “I” could know. This seems like a clever answer, a smarty-pants way to get one up on my readers, and that’s not what I’m trying to do. I can say, though, that it is not “something” that “I” achieved. Müller again: “What remains is indescribable. It is indescribable simply because there is no one left who can describe it. There is no one left who experiences oneness (which, by the way, would then not be oneness anymore) and could possibly know how that is. Yes, there is no one left who knows how it is. That is freedom.”

So is this the fruit of meditation? The culmination of some kind of a process? Obviously not. And yet. Could it have happened without a couple of years’ steady practice of meditation, following nearly forty of Christian contemplation? Yes, obviously. People like Eckhart Tolle and Ramana Maharshi each had their illumination following moments of great stress or despair, not unlike, according to their own descriptions, the desert place where I had found myself that night. They do not seem to have spent long years meditating in preparation. Ramana hadn’t had time, anyway; he was only sixteen.

But perhaps, for me at least, practice made a place where it was possible. It just happened, that much is clear. For me, it seems to have happened while I was dreamlessly asleep. But maybe practice functioned like cultivating a field. Cultivation doesn’t make anything grow – you need seeds, and water, and warmth for that – but it does make a place where seeds can safely germinate. I don’t know. Something had to get me out there into that desert – something had to shear away the props that upheld the idea of a me who could get somewhere, even into a desert.

There is certainly nothing I could have done to force such a thing to happen (and from the point of view of “I” that would have felt not unlike some sort of suicide) and it doesn’t happen to or for “me” anyhow. It happens. What is beyond is no thing at all.

[First published on An Open Ground]

The Nub of Hope

“What if the nub of hope is that we cannot know where it is leading?” (Dana Littlepage Smith, writing in The Friend 21 May 2020) This morning the rain is grey and unceasing. Drops trickle down the windows, beyond the reflections of the room lights, on since we woke up, late. A chill seeps in, despite the good tight glazing, and the room’s warmth. Out along the hazels, damp little blue tits flit from shelter to shelter, looking for spiders under the leaves. “Silence is paradoxically a listening, and solitude is truly finding the whole world in God.” George Maloney, Prayer of the Heart: The Contemplative Tradition of the Christian East. “All our steps are ordered by the LORD; how then can we understand our own ways?… The human spirit is the lamp of the LORD, searching every inmost part.” (Proverbs 20:24,27 NRSV) It is only in the darkness of unknowing that the structures of our understanding fall away from our naked awareness, and we find that nothing separates us from the wholly unknowable ground of all that is, Eckhart’s Istigkeit, love alone in which all things come to be, and are held. But it is only when we are at the very end of ourselves that this gift can be received, into open hands that can hold onto nothing anyway, that have lost all they ever had. “…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3 NRSV) “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:24 NRSV)

The Power of the Name

In the Hebrew tradition, to do a thing in the name of another, or to invoke and call upon his name, are acts of weight and potency. To invoke a person’s name is to make that person effectively present. One makes a name alive by mentioning it. The name immediately calls forth the soul it designated; therefore there is such deep significance in the very mention of a name.

Everything that is true of human names is true to an incomparably higher degree of the divine Name. The power and glory of God are present and active in his Name. The Name of God is numen praesens, God with us, Emmanuel. Attentively and deliberately to invoke God’s name is to place oneself in his presence, to open oneself to his energy, to offer oneself as an instrument and a living sacrifice in his hands…

This Hebraic understanding of the Name passes for the Old Testament into the New. Devils are cast out and men are healed through the Name of Jesus., for the Name is power. Once this potency of the Name is properly appreciated, many familiar passages acquire a fuller meaning and force…

It is this biblical reverence for the Name that forms the basis and foundation of the Jesus Prayer. God’s name is intimately linked with his Person, and so the invocation of the divine Name possesses a sacramental character, serving as an efficacious sign of his invisible presence and action. For the believing Christian roday, as in apostolic times, the Name of Jesus is power…

Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

John 20:24-28

I have come to realise, over the 40-odd years I have (more or less faithfully) prayed the Jesus Prayer, that these words are no more than a simple statement of fact. As long as the prayer is with me – and it does after a time become part of one’s breathing, one’s walking, one’s dreaming even – then one is in the presence of God, and all one’s actions, good and bad – and they will not all be good, believe me – will somehow be drawn together in God, so that, as it says in Proverbs 20.24, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” It doesn’t seem necessary to understand; all that does seem necessary, these days, is to pray, truly.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…