Selections from “Anam Cara” by John O’Donohue

It is a startling truth that how you see and what you see determines how and who you will be.  An interesting way of beginning to do some interior work is to explore your particular style of seeing.  Ask yourself, what do I behold in the world?  Through this question you will discover your specific pattern of seeing.

To the fearful eye, all is threatening.  When you look toward the world in a fearful way, all you see and concentrate on are things that can damage and threaten you.  The fearful eye is always besieged by threat.

To the greedy eye, everything can be possessed.  Greed is one of the powerful forces in the modern Western world.  It is sad that a greedy person can never enjoy what they have, because they are always haunted by that which they do not yet possess.  This can refer to land, books, companies, ideas, money, or art.  The motor and agenda of greed is always the same.  Joy is possession, but sadly possession is ever restless; it has an inner insatiable hunger.  Greed is poignant because it is always haunted and emptied by future possibility; it can never engage presence.  However, the more sinister aspect of greed is its ability to sedate and extinguish desire.  It destroys the natural innocence of desire, dismantles its horizons, and replaces them with a driven and atrophied possessiveness.  This greed is now poisoning the Earth and impoverishing its people.  Having has become the sinister enemy of being.

To the judgmental eye, everything is closed in definitive frames.  When the judgmental eye looks out, it sees things in terms of lines and squares.  It is always excluding and separating, and therefore it never sees in a compassionate or celebratory way.  To see is to judge.  Sadly, the judgmental eye is always equally harsh with itself.  It sees only the images of its tormented interiority projected outward from itself.  The judgmental eye harvests the reflected surface and calls it truth.  It enjoys neither the forgiveness nor imagination to see deeper into the ground of things where truth is paradox.  An externalist, image-driven culture is the corollary of such an ideology of facile judgment.

To the resentful eye, everything is begrudged.   People who have allowed the canker of resentment into their vision can never enjoy who they are or what they have.  They are always looking out toward others with resentment.  Perhaps they are resentful because they see others as more beautiful, more gifted, or richer than themselves.  The resentful eye lives out of its poverty and forgets its own inner harvest.

To the indifferent eye, nothing calls or awakens.  Indifference is one of the hallmarks of our times.  It is said that indifference is necessary for power; to hold control one has to be successfully indifferent to the needs and vulnerabilities of those under control.  Thus indifference calls for a great commitment to nonvision.  To ignore things demands incredible mental energy.  Without even knowing it, indifference can place you beyond the frontiers of compassion, healing, and love.  When you become indifferent, you give all your power away.  Your imagination becomes fixated in the limbo of cynicism and despair.

To the inferior eye, everyone else is greater.  Others are more beautiful, brilliant, and gifted than you.  The inferior eye is always looking away from its own treasures.  It can never celebrate its own presence and potential.  The inferior eye is blind to its secret beauty.  The human eye was never designed to look up in a way that inflates the Other to superiority, nor to look down, reducing the Other to inferiority.  To look someone in the eye is a nice testament to truth, courage, and expectation.  Each one stands on common, but different, ground.

To the loving eye, everything is real.  This art of love is neither sentimental nor naive.  Such love is the greatest criterion of truth, celebration, and reality.  Kathleen Raine, a Scottish poet, says that unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see it at all.  Love is the light in which we see light.  Love is the light in which we see each thing in its true origin, nature, and destiny.  If we could look at the world in a loving way, then the world would rise up before us full of invitation, possibility, and depth.

The loving eye can even coax pain, hurt, and violence toward transfiguration and renewal.  The loving eye is bright because it is autonomous and free.  It can look lovingly upon anything.  The loving vision does not become entangled in the agenda of power, seduction, opposition, or complicity.  Such vision is creative and subversive.  It rises above the pathetic arithmetic of blame and judgment and engages experience at the level of its origin, structure, and destiny.  The loving eye sees through and beyond image and effects the deepest change.  Vision is central to your presence and creativity.  To recognize how you see things can bring you self-knowledge and enable you to glimpse the wonderful treasures your life secretly holds.

 

Selections from “Advent: Hope or Delusion?” by Thomas Merton

The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge.  Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance.  Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist.  We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities.  Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.

It is important to remember the deep, in some ways anguished seriousness of Advent, when the mendacious celebrations of our marketing culture so easily harmonize with our tendencey to regard Christmas, consciously or otherwise, as a return to our own innocence and our own infancy.  Advent should remind us that the “King Who is to Come” is more than a charming infant smiling (or if you prefer a dolorous spirituality, weeping) in the straw. There is certainly nothing wrong with the traditional family jours of Christmas, nor need we be ashamed to find ourselves still able to anticipate them without too much ambivalence. After all, that in itself is no mean feat.

But the Church in preparing us for the birth of a “great prophet,” a Saviour and a King of Peace, has more in mind than seasonal cheer.  The advent mystery focuses the light of faith upon the very meaning of life, of history, of man, of the world and of our own being.  In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world.  We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies.  Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent.

In our time, what is lacking is not so much the courage to ask this question as the courage to expect an answer…  We may at times be able to show the world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some confirmation of the Christian message.  But the fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be.  The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will.  Our Advent is a celebration of this hope.

On God

The human mind represents reality to itself with images.  I form images in my mind of other people.  And other people form images in their minds of me.  I form images in my mind of myself and the world.  The mental images I form of you or me or life or reality are, at best, imperfect pictures of the reality they represent.  The Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote “No idea represents or signifies itself.  It always points to something else, of which it is a symbol.”  The same is true of our images of God.

When we discover our images of God are inadequate pictures of the reality of God, sometimes we rush to assume God therefore mustn’t exist.  But we rarely make the same conclusion elsewhere.  When I discover my images of a friend are inadequate, that my friend is far more complex and mysterious than I had previously imagined, I don’t conclude my friend doesn’t exist.  Or when I find out my self-images are rather idealized, that there are unowned or discomforting parts of myself that vary from my preferred images, I don’t automatically assume I don’t exist.  To do so would be to confuse image and reality.  The uncomfortable realization that my images of reality are inadequate primarily says something about my images, not reality.

The mathematician George Box wrote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  The point of Box’s statement is no model can comprehensively contain whatever real world system it relates to.  The complexity of life and activity in the real world always exceeds what our models describe or explain.  All models, then, are ultimately false.  They are close approximations of part of reality at best.  This is true in math, science, philosophy, and indeed religion.  The apophatic theologian would likewise say “All images of God are wrong, but some are useful.”  Our models or images of God are ultimately false.  We can only speak of God and think of God by analogy.  To think otherwise would surely be the height of intellectual arrogance.  But some images are still useful.  Some may still be significantly true, even if not absolutely so.  It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.

Totalitarian minds see knowledge as all-or-nothing.  If a model does not explain all of reality, then it must explain none of reality.  The totalitarian mind foolishly imagines it can fully contain reality in comprehensible concepts, images, and models.  It’s possessive reasoning desires to master reality as something to be owned and conquered.  God, however, has traditionally been understood as Absolute Reality, the total, all-pervading, unlimited Power of Existence.  Across many ancient traditions, God has been understood as the Source of all that we call Life and Goodness and Beauty and Truth.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Life, Goodness, Beauty, and Truth.  God, traditionally understood, exceeds the symbols and analogies we use to describe God.  This is fundamentally why issues of idolatry are prominent themes in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Interacting with God-as-an-image is different than interacting with God-as-a-living-reality.  But this distinction applies beyond religion.  The same hold true in social life.  There’s a significant difference between interacting with a person-as-an-image and a person-as-a-living-reality.  Many social conflicts persist and escalate because, at the heart of them, one or both sides is fighting against an inadequate and distorted image projected onto the other.  Sadly we can become so arrogantly attached to our images of others that we refuse to update them whatsoever even when we are confronted by their glaring deficiencies.  Instead, we’d rather live and act as if our images are totally correct.  In a marriage, spouses can interact with internalized images of their past-spouse in such a way that they do not allow their spouse to change or become anything different.  When both become attached to hardened images of their past-selves, spouses can become totally stuck in painful patterns of conflict that revolve around the same recurring grievances.  The point being, human beings have a tendency to become strongly attached to their mental images of reality.

Eckhart wrote elsewhere, “The highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of is to let go of God for the sake of God.”  His paradoxical statement focuses in on the heart of the issue: that often we must progressively let go of our images of God if we wish to further encounter the reality of God.  When we recognize our images of God cannot contain the reality of God, we are recognizing something that has been long ago embedded into ancient wisdom traditions.  We are recognizing that the reality of God is unfathomably greater and grander than we could possibly imagine.  True theology begin in such a place.  True theology begins in humble reverence, where we tremble with fascination before the ineffable Mystery of Life.

On Faith

You cannot live without believing any more than you can live without breathing.  To be human is to believe.  It is inherent to our condition.  Believing is what gets you up in the morning.  It is what inspires you to live as if your life has purpose, to think that there are yet new and better things to experience on the horizons of your existence.  Believing is what motives you to move, to act, to do anything, for you only pursue what you believe is in someway worthwhile.  No one wastes precious energy doing something he does not believe is worth doing.  What we most profoundly believe about life orients and calibrates every other function of our being: our thoughts, feelings, motives, memories, imaginings, relations, actions, aims, and concerns.

A person without the smallest shred faith would become painfully inert and unmotivated.  This is a basic quality of severe depression: the agonizing inability to believe there is anything worth living for.  Deep depression is frequently described as a kind of psychological darkness or fog, because those who find themselves in it struggle see a reason to go on.  An individual suffering from depression can become stuck in a dreadful abyss of hopeless despair.  Performing simple, ordinary tasks—like getting out of bed, getting dressed, having a shower, or going to work—can be immensely draining, since a depressed individual cannot see any real purpose in doing them.  Life seems pointless.  And life is painful.  So living becomes an intolerable burden.  But believing your life has purpose can make suffering its pain worthwhile.  Nietzsche insisted “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”  We believe, as we breathe, to live with vitality.  To live without faith or hope is to live in hell.  It is to live in an overwhelmingly dark and painful place, void of motive and purpose.

James Fowler writes “faith is a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life.  More verb than noun, faith is a dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide a person’s life.”  Wilfred Cantwell Smith likewise describes faith as “an orientation of the personality to oneself, to one’s neighbor, to the universe; a total response, a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles; a capacity to live at more than a mundane level; to see, to feel, to act in terms of a transcendent dimension.”  So for Smith, “faith is a quality of human living.”

Faith is not simply assenting to some conscious, abstract idea, and believing is not simply an intellectual or cognitive act—though belief and faith have often been reduced to this over modern history.  Nor is faith merely some optional religious commitment to metaphysical conjectures.  Faith originates in our core.  It is an intuitive, gut-level trust formed out of unspeakable knowledge of the soul.  Though faith may be expressed in abstract beliefs and ideas, faith reflects the deepest dispositions of the psyche. It ascends into the mind from unconscious depths.  Believing therefore involves our entire self.  But Smith acknowledges that this differs from typical modern understandings of faith:

There was a time when “I believe” as a ceremonial declaration of faith meant, and was heard as meaning: “Given the reality of God, as a fact of the universe, I hereby proclaim that I align my life accordingly, pledging love and loyalty.” A statement about a person’s believing has now come to mean, rather, something of this sort: “Given the uncertainty of God, as a fact of modern life, so-and-so reports that the idea of God is part of the furniture of his mind.”

Hypocrisy complicates understanding the dynamics of faith.  You won’t understand the full nature of faith if you expect to restrict it to consciously assenting to propositional beliefs.  To be human is to be capable of saying one thing and doing another.  As a human I can also say I believe one thing, and perhaps even convince myself that I do, while unconsciously believing something quite different.  For example, David Benner points out an individual’s assumed spirituality may not be the same as her actual spirituality, which is to say what she professes and practices can be different things.  The same rift can develop between what I assume I believe and what I actually believe.  Though the pathway to wholeness involves healing my inner rifts.  Only by facing where I am fragmented can I become a mature, integrated person.

Without absolute omniscience, faith is necessary.  Faith steps out from the ground of what is known into what is unknown.  Faith leans over the edge of life.  Though reasonable faith is not blind, it demands taking trust-worthy risks.  Relationships require such trust, and without it they die.  But faith, forged through past experiences, gives us courage for the present and hope for the future.  Faith is always pressing forward, leaning into an unknown future, an unknown world, an unknown face.

 

On Politics

Isn’t the fundamental, supporting assumption of human rights that all people deserve basic respect, safety, and freedoms as human beings?  Human rights are not essentially racial identity rights or sexual identity rights or religious identity rights or gender identity rights, though they may include freedoms in all of these areas.   Basic respect, safety, and freedoms are afforded to individuals as inalienable rights on the basis of their human identity, no matter their race, religion, sex, gender, status, age, etc.  Hence the name, “human rights.”  The inclusive rationale for its doctrine is simple: “If you are a human being, then you are entitled to basic respect, safety, and freedoms.”  But the logic of identity politics has a subtle but important difference.  Its misplaced rationale is, “If you are a member of this group or that group, then you are entitled to basic respect, safety, and freedoms.”

I’m beginning to wonder if playing the games of identity politics is actually making us more racist and sexist and tribal.  I hope I’m wrong.  But I can’t shake the suspicion.  It would certainly be ironic, since reducing group-based prejudice is one of its assumed motive.  But prejudging others first by group identifications seems to be becoming far more common than judging others on as individuals.  The rise of certain forms of collectivist thinking is making it more challenging to see others first as unique individuals and fellow human beings, regardless of their sex, gender, religion, race, status, etc.

I’m concerned that the identity games we’re playing may actually be deepening divides between groups in our society rather than bridging them.  I’m concerned that we’re conditioning ourselves to see and judge others by their groups first, and then only possibly as individuals after.  I’m concerned we may be losing sight of our common humanity and shared life together by focusing first, if not solely, on group differences.  And I’m concerned about some of the directions our society is moving and the implications they pose for our democracy.

Is it possible to address group inequalities without judging individuals first and foremost by group-identities?  Is it possible to find some middle ground between a hyper-collectivism that fosters tribalism and a hyper-individualism that fosters selfism?  Is it possible to treat one another as individuals, as members of diverse groups, and as fellow human beings simultaneously?  Would it not be more unifying to argue—in classic liberal fashion—that every individual deserves basic respect, safety, and freedom because they are a human being, regardless of their race, religion, sex, gender, status, age etc?

Perhaps we need a good humanist revolution that raises our awareness of our shared humanity.

 

On Faith

Everyone believes.  Everyone doubts.  There are no pure believers or pure doubters.  For every belief implies doubt, and every doubt implies belief.  They’re two sides of the same act.  To believe one thing means to doubts its alternatives.  To doubt one thing means to believe an alternative.  Belief and doubt necessarily coexist.  Indeed, doubt never exists in a vacuum, as if doubt is the absence of all belief as some claim.  A particular doubt can only be portrayed as a lack of belief by keeping the doubt’s supporting beliefs hidden, whether they’re simply taken for granted by the one who doubts, or they’re deceptively masked behind false pretences and appearances.

Doubt always exists alongside some belief.  I cannot doubt something without first coming to believe something else.  Perhaps I doubt one belief because I hold a different belief.  Or perhaps I form a habit of doubting by default because I have learned to believe that always doubting is a virtue.  Whatever the case may be, to doubt is to believe.  So whenever a person doubts something it raises the question, what does he believe?   And whenever a person believes something it raises the question, what does she doubt?  Doubts never spontaneously emerge from nothing.  Doubts emerge from the constellation of my experience, learning, and knowledge, which shape my most deeply held beliefs about life.  Doubts are derivatives of beliefs.  In the absence of absolute omniscience, belief is necessary fact of life.  To be human is to believe.  For if I cannot know everything then I must choose to trust something.

Portraying disagreements over higher things in simplistic dichotomies like “belief versus doubt” mischaracterizes and obscures what is actually going on.  Such portrayals only highlights one side of the story, one slant, one angle, and often one agenda.  What is actually going on is one constellation of beliefs is conflicting with an alternative constellation of beliefs.  But the conflict tends to go even deeper than mere cognitive beliefs, ideas, and concepts.  The conflict descends down into tacit sociocultural imaginaries of images, values, stories, and symbols that guide individual and group experience, and which also influence what one assumes to be believable or unbelievable, prior to cognitive or formal reasoning. This tacit level of knowledge is often so assumed, so deeply taken for granted, that it frequently remains unacknowledged and unarticulated.  But there is also a battle of imagination occurring.  Everyone and every group imagines what life is like and lives by what they come up with.

The real scenario is belief versus belief, or imaginary versus imaginary, where “believers” and “doubters” can easily exchange roles depending on which belief is under consideration.

 

On Psychology

A developmental psychologist, Robert Kegan, says a fundamental theme of human growth unfolds in moving from being to having.  It is the movement from thinking “I am my impulses” to “I have my impulses.”  Or “I am my needs” to “I have my needs.” Or “I am my feelings” to “I have my feelings.”  Or “I am my beliefs” to “I have my beliefs.”  Or “I am my relationships” to “I have my relationships.”  Or “I am my work” to “I have my work.”  When my sense of self is intimately bound to my impulses or needs or feelings or beliefs or relationships or work, then I will perceive any challenge or obstacle to these as a threat to my very self.

Children from ages of about two to five tend to be their impulses.  This is especially apparent in toddlers who can go from being happy to sad to nervous to happy within a short span of minutes.  They’re moods can shift so rapidly because they tend to automatically act out their impulses.  Part of growing beyond this life-stage involves the child “disembedding” herself from her impulses.  This process eventually allows her to reintegrate herself with her impulses as something she has rather than something she is.  Gaining inner distance from her impulses is necessary in order to gain some control over them.  Otherwise the child will remain controlled by them.

Fundamentalists and ideologues of all stripes tend to be characterized by thinking they are some belief.  Since no one can know everything, these beliefs are inevitably oversimplifications about life.  Problems develop when oversimplified views of life are pushed and applied as total explanations about everything.  Questioning an ideologue’s core beliefs typically provokes heated and defensive overreactions, because such questions are perceived as attacks on their very self.  An ideologue cannot think clearly about his core beliefs, because he cannot gain enough space between his self and his beliefs in order to view them with some objectivity.  They may not even be able to state their beliefs very clearly if they’ve become so intimately bound up with them.

You can imagine how fusing oneself to other aspects of one’s life can be problematic.  If I fuse myself to certain impulses or needs, then I may act them out in harmful ways and struggle immensely to gain balanced self-control over them.  If I am my emotions, then my sense of self will fluctuate with the ebb and flow of my feelings, perhaps dramatically so.  If I fuse myself to my significant relationships, then I’m at risk of plummeting into some dreadful depression if one of my significant relationships fails.  And if I associate myself with my work, then losing my job or retiring will likely trigger an existential crisis.

Human development, according to Kegan, involves disembedding oneself from one’s impulse, for example, and then reintegrating one’s impulses as something the self relates with.  So impulses, needs,  feelings, beliefs, relationships, and work are still very important aspects in the life of a mature person.  But how a mature person relates himself to these will greatly differ from how an immature person does.