feeling at home in the world

It is one thing to write a thesis on a book such as this, Meditations of a Modern Believer, it is another thing to then blog about those thoughts, especially as I am attempting to identify and explain the psychological and spiritual dynamics of the author, of a flesh and blood human being with a name and a life and a family. I am so aware of the fact that my knowledge of this person is dependent on that which I read. If he was merely a character in a novel this work wouldn’t feel quite so intrusive, so presumptuous.

What gives me some comfort is the fact that my psychological reasoning tells me that what I ‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘interpret’ is as much a projection of my own psyche as it is an analysis of his. And so I engage this work and this book respectfully. Not just for the author, but for myself.

This book has moved me profoundly; I have read it and re-read it and then read it again (I do not read books twice. Just so you know!) I have had to read and re-read it as an academic exercise, it has been necessary, but as a spiritual exercise the reading and re-reading has been a joy. I resonate with his journey, there are nuggets of wisdom and truth and humanity on every page… and … it has helped me to grow in confidence – into both my faith and my doubt.

*listen* to this part:

tightrope walkerIf God is a salve applied to unbearable psychic wounds, or a dream figure conjured out of memory and mortal terror, or an escape from a life that has become either too appalling or too banal to bear, then I have to admit: it is not working for me. Just when I think I’ve finally found some balance between active devotion and honest modern consciousness, all my old anxieties come pressuring up through the seams of me, and I am as volatile and paralysed as ever. I can’t tell which is worse, standing numb and apart from the world, wanting Being to burn me awake, or feeling that fire too acutely to crave anything other than escape into everydayness. What I do know is that the turn toward God has not lessened my anxieties, and I find myself continually falling back into wounds, wishes, terrors I thought I had risen beyond.

Be careful. Be certain that your expressions of regret about your inability to rest in God do not have a tinge of self-satisfaction, even self-exaltation to them, that your complaints about your anxieties are not merely a manifestation of your dependence on them. There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us, whether as explanations for a life that never quite finds its true force or direction, or as fuel for ambition, or as a kind of reflexive secular religion that, paradoxically, unites us with others in a shared sense of complete isolation: you feel at home in the world only by never feeling at home in the world. (:9)



life and death

in reading this, it is worth remembering that this man has faced death head on. death and excruciating pain. I cannot help but wonder if thoughts of his wife, were in part, the reason for the profound words…

letting goI’m a Christian not because of the resurrection (I wrestle with this), and not because I think Christianity contains more truth than other religions (I think God reveals himself, or herself, in many forms, some not religious), and not simply because it was the religion in which I was raised (this has been a high barrier). I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured? The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.) I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolute solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion – to the point of death, even – possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.

Such a realisation should ease loneliness – even for the griever who is left alone; it should also, in time, help to propel one back into life. Nothing is served by following someone into a grave. Somehow, even deep within extreme grief, the worst pain is knowing that your pain will pass, all the sharp particulars of life that one person’s presence made possible will fade into mere memory, and then not even that. Consequently, many people fight hard to keep their wound fresh, for in that wound, at least, is the loss, and in the loss the life you shared. Or so it seems. In truth the life you shared, because it was shared, was marked by joy, by light. Cradled in loneliness, it becomes pure grief, pure shadow, which is a problem not simply for the present and the future, but for the past as well. Excessive grief, the kind that paralyses a person, the kind that eventually becomes an entire personality – in the end this does not honor the love that is its origin. Is, not was: our dead have presence. You don’t need to believe in some literal heaven to feel the ways in which the dead inhabit us – for good, if we will let them do that, which means paradoxically, letting them go (Wiman 2013:155).

creation streaming

creation streamingOne of the most influential figures in Wiman’s life was his grandmother, a woman who ‘was in the world too utterly to be “conscious” of it’. A woman whose faith was the very air she breathed. Wiman says ‘God was almost instinctive in [her], so woven into the textures of [her life], that even daily chores, accompanied by hymns hummed under [her] breath, had an air of easy devotion’ (:34). It is this grandmother who continues to speak meaning into Wiman’s experience of God and in a beautiful explanation of feminine consciousness he says the following:

When my grandmother … died twenty years ago, I was pierced, not simply by grief and the loss of her presence, but by a sense that some very particular and hard-won kind of consciousness had gone out of the world … there is a kind of consciousness that is not consciousness as intellectuals define it. It is passive rather than active; it involves allowing the world to stream through you rather than always reaching out to take hold of it. It is the consciousness of the work of art and not necessarily of the artist who made it. People, occasionally can be such works, creation streaming through them like the inspiration that, in truth, all of creation is.

I felt a million living tendrils

Rooting through the thing I was,

As if I’d turned to earth before my death

Or in my death could somehow feel.

… if this consciousness I’m describing is gendered (and I think it is), it is clearly feminine. The single most damaging and distorting thing that religion has done to faith involves overlooking, undervaluing, and even outright suppressing this interior, ulterior kind of consciousness. So much Western theology has been constructed on a fundamental disfigurement of the mind and reality. In neglecting the voices of women, who are more attuned to the immanent nature of divinity, who feel that eruption in their very bodies, theology has silenced a powerful – perhaps the most powerful – side of God. (:153)

keeping it real …

theology“It is easy enough to write and talk about God while remaining comfortable within the contemporary intellectual climate. Even people who would call themselves unbelievers often use the word gesturally, as a ready-made synonym for mystery. But if nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self” (Wiman 2013:120).

an appalling, offensive, degrading faith …

In the spirit of sharing my favourite passages, here is another one. This one is almost in answer to the previous post on religious despair…

homeless-dog-12“God is distant, difficult,” writes Geoffrey Hill, a contemporary religious poet whose work – distant, difficult – might be said to have grown out of the seed of that assumption. But in fact distance from God – the assumption of it – is often not the terror and scourge we make it out to be, but the very opposite: it is false comfort, for it asks nothing immediate of us, or what it asks is interior, intellectual, self-enclosed. The result is a moment of meditative communion, perhaps, or a work of art, or even – O my easy, hazy God – one more little riff on the Ineffable.

To believe in – to serve – Christ, on the other hand, is quite difficult, and precisely because of how near he is to us at all times. In Seattle once, when I was twenty-one and working at some crap temp job downtown, I used to spend my lunch hours near the docks. One particular day when everything was crisp, blue, new – and even the molten men emerging from the metal with which they were working, and the bickering gulls buoyed up in gusts, and my own release from numbing office efficiency seemed to verge on some mysterious, tremendous articulation of light and time – suddenly a tattered, gangrenous man staggered toward me with his arms out like a soul in hell.

Modern spiritual consciousness is predicated upon the fact that God is gone, and spiritual experience, for many of us, amounts mostly to an essential, deeply felt and necessary, but ultimately inchoate and transitory feeling of oneness or unity with existence. It is mystical and valuable, but distant. Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appals, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how “ungodly” that clarity often turns out to be.

I thrust my lunch into that man’s hands, one of which was furred green as if a mould were growing on it, and fled.

Religious despair, a dark knight?

Although I have highlighted just about every second passage in Wiman’s book there are some words which need no highlighting for they seem to have come straight out of my own consciousness, this is one such passage …

awakening“Religious despair is often a defence against boredom and the daily grind of existence. Lacking intensity in our lives, we say that we are distant from God and then seek to make that distance into an intense experience. It is among the most difficult spiritual ailments to heal, because it is usually wholly illusory. There are definitely times when we must suffer God’s absence, when we are called to enter the dark night of the soul in order to pass into some new understanding of God, some deeper communion with him and with all creation. But this is very rare, and for the most part our dark nights of the soul are, in a way that is more pathetic than tragic, wishful thinking. God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him – to find him – does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of scared art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep”  (:109)

meaning making …

Psychology teaches us that the mind needs meaning, reason, explanations – religion is the gift which shapes meaning, reason and explanation. Rather than being an end in itself, religion offers signposts, it helps us to make sense of the world. Religion can be the means of making the transcendent, overwhelming moments part of our lives, part of our psychological development …

meaning crossWhen I was young, there was a notion among the believers I knew – and I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a believer – that to feel the presence of God required that one seek God constantly, that one’s spiritual instincts demanded the same sort of regular exercise as the muscles of one’s body. The great fear was not that God would withdraw, but that one’s capacity to perceive him would atrophy. I think of this when I hear people say that they have no religious impulse whatsoever, or when I hear believers, or would-be believers, express a sadness and frustration that they have never been absolutely overpowered by God. I always want to respond: really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through words to reach you? Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over mastery in your life, these rare times in which you are utterly innocent. It is a means of preserving and honouring something that ultimately, transcends the elements of whatever specific religion you practice (C Wiman 2013:70).