A few years ago, I set off on a journey to the heart of Christian contemplation, both in practice and with studies. I began doing Centering Prayer, a form of meditation rooted in monasticism and the teachings of the mystics, and reading works from the mystical margins of Christian tradition—St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Theresa of Avila, Bonaventure, the Patristic fathers—and sharing all this with an international contemplative community. It’s been thrilling. The work transforms me from the inside out, and will have a profound on my writing, teaching, and living for years to come.
Because I love and trust language so much, the hardest part about these past years has been my inability to talk about what I’m learning. I put down a book or return from a symposium feeling like my internal furniture has been rearranged, but I can’t say how, or why, or what. I’m a blubbering fool. At first in bothered me. If I can’t put words to what’s happening, is it real? Now I understand this experience as emblematic of the essence of what I’m learning: With practice, we can move out of our rational, egoic, dualistic understanding of the world into a heart-centered, nondual presence. Our usual framework for identity (Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”) is best served by language. This nondual, unitive consciousness (“My deepest me is God!” Catherine of Genoa shouted, running through the streets) is best served by silence.
Lucky for us, the mystics nonetheless did not give up on language, and we’ve a beautiful heritage of literature written from this expansive and ultimately loving place. Recently I stumbled on this passage, from Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite, which creates a distinction that helps me understand what’s happening. The “consciousness” of the contemporary Christian, Merton writes, “tends to reject the Being of God as irrelevant (or even to accept as perfectly obvious the “death of God”).”
Here there is no metaphysical intuition of Being, and hence “being” is reduced to an abstract concept, a cipher to figure with, a purely logical entity, surely nothing to be concretely experienced. What is experienced as primary is not “being” or “isness” but individual consciousness, reflexive ego-awareness.
Merton describes exactly the God of my hyper-rational, liberal Protestant upbringing. God was an abstraction so removed from my day-to-day reality that we could believe or disbelieve in Him (and it was always a Him). Sure, we talked to Him and called that prayer, and we gathered in honor of Him and called that worship, but beyond those formulaic endeavors we never imagined, much less cultivated, an actual experience of divine presence.
The mystics never gave up on trying to describe this experience, and despite feeling tongue-tied, neither will I. In the meditative practice of peeling away thoughts, consenting over and over to the presence of love within and around me, I’m learning to trust that silence is infused with the perfume of Being, and that this Being is the most powerful force for transformation in our hurting world.