Allowing the Mystery

I am reading God and You: Prayer as a Personal Relationship by William Barry. Barry is a thoughtful Jesuit whose project frames prayer as akin to a deep and abiding friendship. Even as he acknowledges prayer’s breadth – petitionary, contemplative, emotional, mental et cetera – he maintains its ground is in the nature of mutual relationship.

In many ways, this is a sound and pragmatic approach. Human beings are by nature cooperative and relational. Working with one another towards shared ends is our modus operandi. In this light, prayer is simply an extension of the natural expression of our humanness. You can’t not pray.

Barry’s characterization is appealing because of its innate familiarity. There are no intellectual leaps involved. We’re just being reminded of what we’re already adept at. Prayerful relationship with God might be difficult or challenging, but only in the way that any relationship can be challenging or difficult. Indeed, a relationship that was never challenging or difficult would not really count as a meaningful relationship in the first case.

Part of the problem with Barry’s book is a familiar one in Christianity. On the one hand, he portrays God as an impenetrable mystery and on the other – simultaneously – as personally interested in us, all-loving et cetera.

. . . human beings are finite and limited and cannot take in the Mystery we call God. At the deepest level of our being we are both attracted to knowing and loving that Mystery and terrified of it” (Barry 32).

Yet in the next paragraph, Barry writes that “God loves us with an everlasting love.”

It is not nitpicking – nor an offense against Barry – to observe that one cannot have it both ways. God cannot simultaneously be both knowable and familiar and mysterious and unknowable.

I say all this carefully and hopefully at least modestly respectfully. I’m hardly immune to holding contradictory views. But I do think when we become clear about the contradiction – or when it is effectively pointed out to us – we are obligated to give it careful attention. Conflict needs to be resolved.

In my experience, we need to not rush through or past the mystery part. It’s good to realize that we don’t know something. It’s scary and unsettling, but it’s not inherently problematic. It’s not evil. In fact, it can be a very creative and ultimately loving space.

Gaps in our map are not indicative of gaps in the territory! A thousand years ago, it made perfect sense to imagine the sun revolved around the earth. We’ve updated our maps now. The earth isn’t flat. Gardens don’t grow according to the whims of gods and goddesses or when we execute virgins. People weren’t made; they evolved. They are still evolving.

It’s true we don’t know everything, but that’s not a good argument for throwing God into the apparent gap – even if it’s a God who “loves us with an everlasting love.”

If you sit in the mystery, what happens? If you do not rush into the pre-given mental frameworks of Catholicism, monotheism, humanism and so forth, what happens?

The suggestion is not that we shouldn’t ever pray, or that we shouldn’t think in terms of “God” or “not-God.” We are where we are, and we have to own that. After all, here I am reading William Barry and it’s not because I feel like being an intellectual pain-in-the-ass.

The suggestion is simply to give attention to what is happening in order to see clearly what-is-happening. And perhaps to notice the way in which we tend to assume that we already know what is happening. And perhaps to notice that we tend to translate what is happening into familiar terms – love, inner peace, stillness, Christ, lovingkindness, ego, et cetera.

In a way, the only thing we can really do – especially when we reach the apparent “mystery” – is to slowly and carefully update our maps. The relevant territory is internal. We have to go alone and we have to go with the intention of leaving a trail. The deeply personal nature of the work means that external teachers and traditions are only going to be so helpful.

The last thing we put down on this interior journey is our expectation of what we’ll find as we go. If you know in advance what the center holds – if you know it’s a “God” whose love is everlasting – for that matter, if you are sure there is a “center” at all – then you aren’t really going empty-handed into the so-called heart of the so-called mystery.

In a different context – here paraphrased – the artist Jasper Johns said that in order to be a great artist one had to give up everything, including the desire to be a great artist. It is a leap – a commitment – most of us are not willing to make. And it’s okay but also, aren’t we ready at last to make it? Given the sea, why not swim?

If you are reading this – and mulling it over, agreeing or disagreeing – then you are no longer happy or content with retreating into redundant ideology and semantics about God and Love and Inner Peace and all of that. You want to go all the way now and you are trying to figure out how. I don’t personally have any answers in that regard and I’m probably the last – or second to last anyway – person I’d ask.

But here’s the thing. Posts like this – and the reading and thought that underlie them – are a nontrivial part of how “Sean” goes empty-handed into the interior. And if you are here, then perhaps you are traveling, too. And perhaps – just perhaps – in that lovelily syllable “too” is a hint of what comes next.

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