There is an apocryphal story about St. Thomas Aquinas detailed in the book “The Song of the Bird”, by Anthony De Mello:
The story goes that one of the world’s ablest theologians. Thomas Aquinas suddenly stopped writing. When his secretary complained about his unfinished works, Thomas replied: ‘Brother Reginald, some months ago I experienced something of the Absolute, so all I have ever written of God seems to me now to be like straw.’
How could it be otherwise when the scholar becomes a seer?
When the mystic came down from the mountain he was accosted by the atheist who said, sarcastically, “What did you bring us from that garden of delights you were in?”
The mystic replied, “I had every intention of filling my skirt with flowers and giving them to my friends on my return. But while I was there I became so intoxicated with the fragrance of the garden that I let go of the skirt.”
The Zen Masters put it succinctly: “The one who knows, does not say. The one who says, does not know.”
When I first read this story, it resonated with my experiences of Divinity while in seminary and afterward.
Picture a person that used to pray upwards of 3 hours a day: we’d have common morning prayer for about 30 minutes, then I’d get to the church 15-30 minutes before Mass to pray a rosary and contemplate, Mass, then we’d have evening prayer for 30 minutes, and finally I’d spend an hour in the chapel in front of the tabernacle.
For those non-Catholics out there, the tabernacle houses the Eucharist and praying before the tabernacle is just about as close as you can get to God on Earth, aside from when the Eucharist is exposed in a monstrous. Just smile and nod. It’s a Catholic thing. Bottom line is that, while in the presence of the Eucharist, you’re in the presence of God Itself. Herself. His self. Whatever. So I’d sit in the chapel and sometimes read from the writings of the Saints and Doctors of the Church, or I’d just contemplate, or sometimes I’d bring my guitar and play.
And I’d do this, day after day, for nearly 4 years. Sitting with God.
If you’re wondering what contemplation is, the best definition comes from a story of a farmer who’d come to the church and just sit their for awhile. The priest asked “What are you doing”. “Oh, I just come in here and I sit down and I look at God. And He looks at me.”
The act of contemplation was for me, just that – sitting in front of God and we’d look at each other for awhile.
After you do that for many, many hours, you start to come to some understandings of things. Eventually, I stood naked before God (figuratively). When you sit alone with God, you really can’t hide anything. You know what you’ve done, and to whom. You know your sins and failings, and you know that God knows. There’s no hiding it.
There’s a tension with all talk of God. There is a tension between the Transcendent (the omniscient, omnipotent, completely Other) nature of God and the immanent (the loving, personal) nature. As I sat in the chapel, hour after hour, I felt like I became more and more aware the Transcendent reality of the Divine.
God was the Unknowable. Darkness. Other. Silence.
The words of the Tao Te Ching rang true for me in that dark place.
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
As soon as you name God god, you’ve lost God.
My youth group, way back in high school, put a lot of emphasis on “discernment”. We were encouraged to constantly discern what God wanted, in all situations. Who to date? Where to work? What to do with your free time? Should you turn left or right? Should you tell this random person about Jesus?
We were exhorted to try to figure out the will of God in everything.
Well, as I prayed. And prayed. And prayed. I noticed a decidedly acute silence from God in this area. God wasn’t telling me anything. And the more I prayed and listened…. still nothing. Should I stay in seminary? Leave seminary? What was God’s will for me?
And, somewhere around my junior year in seminary, I gave up. I decided that I was going to just decide what to do and if it was God wanted, then cool. If it wasn’t, well…. she wasn’t giving me any answers anyway.
And then. The other really important thing happened. I started to look at all these people who were saying “God wants *insert political agenda here*!” Or “God wants *insert religious agenda here*!” And I looked at them and thought to myself, “You know, I’ve prayed a whole lot. I mean, a lot and God isn’t telling me shit. What are these guys doing differently that they know the will of God?”
And the more I pondered and watched and observed, the more I realized that God wasn’t talking to them, they were just using God as an rhetorical device. A logical fallacy. It was the best “Appeal to Authority” possible because it couldn’t be refuted. “God told me!” wins all sorts of arguments in some circles, including the circles I was raised in.
I promise, I’m going to tie this back to the UU Church. Maybe with the next post…..