Preliminary Remarks: We will begin a long series of reflections on what could be termed as the “foundations and fundamentals” of the spiritual life. These will be spread out over a series of postings during several years—there will certainly be other postings of other material interspersed throughout, so things will not proceed in a rigorous sequence, but I will number the parts as we go along. Furthermore, once a posting has been made and some “Part” has been established, it doesn’t mean that we can’t return to that Part and posting to add some more material as we go along.
Some cautions: My commitment and orientation is to the Christian mystical tradition, but I have learned much and have benefited greatly from my exposure to all the other great religious traditions, and it will be readily apparent that my approach to “foundations & fundamentals” has been thoroughly influenced by Sufism, Buddhism, Taoism, and even certain forms of Hinduism. I do not believe that it is any longer possible for anyone to truly and deeply understand his/her spiritual tradition in isolation from all the others. This I take as one of the major “signs of the times,” of where we are as a human family right now and which sets us apart a bit from our ancestors–maybe. Furthermore, I believe that the one I call God is revealed and is accessible in and through every authentic spiritual tradition. As a methodological principle all this certainly can be debated, but that is a question for another time and another posting!
These postings will be nothing more than reflections, notes, pointers, indicators, “road signs,” etc. They are definitely not meant as a “recipe,” formula, program, map, agenda, a “to-do” list, etc. Nor a final definitive statement. There ain’t no such animal in the zoo–as far as the spiritual life goes!! Nor are these reflections meant to be just more words to add to all the other words that already are in your mind. Hopefully they may help in the unveiling of a deeper significance to what you already know in your heart.
Another point: there seem to be real differences in spiritual experiences. Not too many spiritual writers acknowledge that fact. The usual thing is to say that all differences are in “words,” “language,” “ways,” etc., but the core experience of the core reality is the same. So they say, but I don’t think it’s that simple. And here I am referring to not only the spiritual paths of the great world traditions, but actually even within one and the same tradition, there can be people with quite different spiritual experiences. Thus even within Christian mysticism we can find some very different looking “mysticisms.” Our “foundations & fundamentals” is not meant as a kind of reduction to “one flavor” for all, nor is it meant as a kind of evaluation of a particular approach to mysticism as being “higher” or “lower.” There is an irreducible uniqueness to each person’s life with God, but we may find some common notions that may be helpful to those who feel the call to go beyond just living a “good life.”
Final Prelim: Mostly in the spiritual life we get lost, and what is important is what we do with that lostness. When someone hands you a flashlight on a dark moonless night, that may be helpful but it doesn’t mean “we have made it home.” Merton is one of those “flashlights”– let us conclude this section by listening to him a bit:
“One of the most important things in the spiritual life and in the life of prayer is to let a great deal go on without knowing quite what is going on, and without messing with it, without interfering with it.
“You can’t be helped in the best parts of the spiritual life. If you could be helped it wouldn’t be worth it. There is a great deal of the spiritual life where God alone helps you, and you don’t know that He’s helping you and you can’t tell that He’s helping you…but you have to believe this. Learning to trust when you don’t see what’s happening.
“You make a breakthrough, and what you do is you break through into a deeper level of yourself…. You find a deeper truth that’s really there, in you, but it’s not yours, it’s God’s, and it’s not something that you have accounted for, it’s something that He has accounted for.”
So let us begin:
Part I The Real
“Lead me from the unreal to the Real….” So runs a prayer in the Upanishads. This is a prayer that anyone in any of the great spiritual traditions of the world would be able to pray. This may be the most fundamental prayer that anyone can make. For those of us in the theistic traditions, there may be a surprising connection with some other equally ancient and fundamental words: the so-called 1st Commandment. Let us recall its several wordings:
from Exodus 20: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them….”
from Deuteronomy 5: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
And then there is the restatement in the New Testament.
from Mark 12: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart….”
And from the Quran we have this critical clue to the meaning of all of the above. These are the most important words in Islam and actually they hold for us also if rightly understood:
“La ilaha illa’Llah” There is no god but God
This is the most fundamental affirmation a Moslem and a Sufi can make, and there is a second part to this to which we shall soon come. As with almost all religious truths, we can understand all of the above, including the line from the Upanishads, in a kind of surface, superficial way or maybe in a very literal sense, or yet again in the true deeper sense that reveals a whole new world of meaning. This would hold for the rishis of the Upanishads, the Sufis of Islam and the Christian mystics. What we shall do now is quote extensively concerning that fundamental Islamic statement of faith which will then illuminate the profound connection between Christian mysticism and that wonderful prayer from the Upanishads. Our quotes will be from a lecture by Thomas Merton to his fellow monks and novices, and from an essay by a Sufi scholar by the name of Reza Shah-Kazemi.
Let us begin with Merton: “The whole religion of Islam is extremely simple. And it is all contained in one or two basic formulas, real basic formulas. And the most basic one is a thing called the shahadah–La ilaha illa ‘Llah–Muhammadan Rasulu ‘Llah–which is the famous statement, There is no god but God, (there is no god but Allah) and (Muhammad is the one who is really sent), Muhammad is His Prophet.’ The way this is usually translated is ‘There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet.’ Now, of course the way that is usually interpreted is in terms of a kind of orthodoxy, but that’s not the way the Sufis look at it…. It is not confined to that…if that was all they were saying, they wouldn’t have got very far…. Actually, what you’ve got in the two parts of the shahadah, you’ve got tanzih and tashbih. The first part is tanzih and the second part is tashbih. The first part…begins, as some of these Sufi commentators say, with a denial. The first part says, ‘There is no god.’ It starts with that, ‘There is no god,’ and then it says, ‘but there is, and He is Allah.’ So what this statement is, then, is a negative and then an assertion. That there is no god and it also means there is no reality, so what this is saying is nothing is real…except Allah. He alone is Real. And then, and this is your tanzih statement, there is this infinite hidden reality, and this is The Reality, but then comes up the question, What about everything else? Well, it’s real too insofar as it comes from Him…. How do you get that out of ‘Muhammad is His Prophet’? Well, as the Sufis interpret this, the first part is about God, the second part is about the world. And the world is that which has come forth from God…and into which He has sent the prophets, and especially Muhammad…. Muhammad doesn’t just simply mean this one particular prophet. He stands in a certain sense for man, insofar as he is considered by Muslims the perfect man. Muhammad was the one who ‘made it.’ Everybody else should seek to some extent to approach the knowedge of God which Muhammad had. Everybody should try to be to some extent a kind of prophet…and what man ought to be is a person who knows that Allah is the One Reality and that everything else is a manifestation of God.”
And now from the Sufi scholar Reza Shah-Kazemi: “What is meant by the phrase ‘metaphysics of oneness’ is the metaphysical interpretation given by the Sufis to the fundamental message of the Quran, the principle of tawhid, expressed in the credal formula: La ilaha illa’Llah—no god but God. Whereas theologically the statement is a relatively straightforward affirmation of the uniqueness of the Divinity and the negation of other ‘gods’, metaphysically the formula is read as an affirmation of the true nature of being: no reality but the one Reality. Kashani comments as follows on one of the many verses affirming the central principle of tawhid, namely, 20:8: ‘Allah, there is no god but Him’: ‘His unique essence does not become multiple, and the reality of His identity derives therefrom, and does not become manifold; so He is He in endless eternity as He was in beginningless eternity. There is no He but Him, and no existent apart from Him.’ We have here not only an affirmation of the oneness of God to the exclusion of other gods, but also, and more fundamentally, the affirmation of a unique reality which is exclusive of all otherness, or rather in relation to which all otherness is unreal….
“The shift from ‘theological’ tawhid to ‘ontological’ tawhid is one of the hallmarks of another great representative of the school of Ibn Arabi, Sayyid Haydar Amoli, in whose works one observes a remarkable synthesis between Shi’ite gnosis and Sufi metaphysics. He refers to the ‘folk of the exterior’ who pronounce the formula La ilaha…. in the sense conveyed by the following Quranic verse, an exclamation by the polytheists of the strangeness of the idea of affirming one deity: ‘Does he make the gods one God? This is a strange thing.’ This monotheistic affirmation is, for Amoli, the essence of the tawhid professed by the folk of the exterior, and is called ‘theological’ tawhid. In contrast, the ‘folk of the interior’ negate the multiplicity of existences, and affirm the sole reality of divine being; their formula is: ‘There is nothing in existence apart from God’….
“…in the Quranic perspective, every single thing, by dint of its very existence, ‘praises’ and ‘glorifies’ its Creator; its existence constitutes its praise. Every created thing bears witness to, and thus ‘praises’, its Creator; the existence of every existent ‘glorifies’ the bestower of existence. But, more fundamentally, the existence of every existing thing is not its own; this existence ‘belongs’ exclusively to that reality for which it serves as a locus of theophany; there is no ‘sharing’, ‘partnership’, or ‘association’ in being…. Thus we return to the metaphysics of oneness; nothing is real but God. Each thing in existence has two incommensurable dimensions: in and of itself a pure nothingness; but in respect of that which is manifested to it, through it, by means of it–it is real.”
So, these two lenghty quotes point us in the right direction concerning the first principle of the spiritual life. Both the fundamental Islamic creedal affirmation and the 1st Commandment of the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures admonish us against idolatry. But both with the Christian mystics and with the Sufis we are to understand this in a much deeper way than simply making an image of some critter and worshipping it. Idolatry means making some existent into an independent reality existing “alongside” God as it were. This has enormous implications. For example, popular piety might hold that there you are and here I am and then there is God. It is as if God were the “third” element in a series of existing things. But that is to misunderstand grossly the reality of God and our own reality. This not only puts God somewhere “out there” but it also makes my reality and your reality kind of independent self-existing realities. It also creates this illusion of a distance between oneself and the one we call God, THE REAL. This is truly the beginning of idolatry.
First of all, every single thing exists only because God calls it into existence and His call is also His very presence. In other words, every single entity is connected to and related to God or else it does not have existence. Reality is from God; reality manifests God. Whatever “realness” any entity has, comes directly and depends directly on the Reality of God—apart from that there is nothing. Look into the eyes of your pet and you will see the Presence–the “catness” of the cat, the “dogness” of the dog are on fire with the reality of God, manifesting the One Reality. Every blade of grass, every little ant, every galaxy, every human being, every single thing is the Burning Bush filled with the Presence of God or else it doesn’t exist. That’s why everything is truly “holy ground.” Apart from God, everything, absolutely everything is pure nothingness. But precisely so, it is impossible “to be” and “to be apart from God.” To view things this way is to enter a state of delusion. However, our state of blindness or delusion can be so serious that we can actually consider ourselves and our world independent of the reality of God. This was the view, for example, of the 18th Century deists in the West—God as the Great Clockmaker, creation as a great clock which God winds up and puts down and it runs on its own. This was never the view of the mystics. If we look at the world that way, we will be entering idolatry–attributing being to things that have no being of their own– and affirming that nothingness as a something. The roots of nihilism and despair and delusion.
The story is told that one day a very devout Sufi came to the great Rabia, a Sufi woman mystic in Iraq, and said to her, “I have never sinned before God.” And she answered him, “Your very existence is the greatest sin there is.” And of course she is cutting through the crap of this piety by getting to the root problem, which is not really pride or hypocrisy or some other words like that–a superficial way of approaching the problem which Jesus noted also. The fact is that underneath all our so-called “sins” lies that fundamental idolatry of self, that view of ourselves as something substantial and not dependent, something more than nothingness and independent of God, possessors of our own being, our own reality and then negotiating with God, pleasing God, placating God, etc. as if we could stand independently “outside” God.
In the Gospel, in Luke 18, it says: “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.'” Here Jesus addresses the same problem as Rabia, but from a slightly different angle. Yes, there are commandments to carry out and virtues to practice but none of this “goodness” has any reality apart from THE REALITY—they simply manifest this Reality. However, if we look on these as something WE “achieve,” “accomplish,” “do,” etc., as if this “goodness” had its own independent reality, which we then bring before God for “reward,” and “approbation,” then we are slipping into idolatry and making the nothingness into something–even with our piety– and in effect “consorting with Satan”–recall, “Get behind me, Satan! to Peter’s proposal, and to the tempter in the desert a firm rebuke as Jesus is offered a seeming reality(a seeming good) that is independent of God, apart from God. And that was Eve’s problem in the Garden also…etc.
Another look at this: Recall this parable from Luke 18 also: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner.” We know what Jesus said, and we can guess what Rabia would have said, but another thing here is that the tax-collector is the paradigmatic figure for the Jesus Prayer tradition. And if we get at the root meaning of the word “sin” as “separation from God,” then we meet this paradox. The one who is proclaiming and admitting that he has been acting and living his daily life as if he were separate from God, as if his being had its own reality, this one is “justified” because he can only acknowledge that fact if he already recognizes his own nothingness and the “Allness” of God–in other words, that very acknowledgment, when it is sincere and true, is only possible when someone recognizes his own nothingness and God’s Presence in all that is. On the other hand, the guy who brings forward “his own virtuous life” is doomed to delusion and idolatry, the land of the unreal, because “only God is good” and he does not recognize the real meaning of a “good deed.”
Somewhere in his diary Abhishiktananda writes: “Perhaps there is only God!” One can almost see the twinkle in his eyes as one reads these words! They are sentiments that usually upset the orthodox devout, make others nervous, and leave some purzzled. To say that only God is Real and that we and all else have even less substantiality than a wisp of fog, a trace of morning dew seems outlandish, even heretical, etc. Accusations of pantheism will arise; accusations that one is importing alien non-Christian ideas, etc. A lot of this is a problem in language and as long as this is presented in an abstract academic fashion as it were, then serious misunderstandings can take place. However, the moment one begins to “taste” God(as the Sufis would say), with even just a glimmer of the reality of the Divine, then one begins to easily proclaim one’s nothingness. Such has been the unbroken witness of countless Christian mystics also. Too often their language has been taken as being “negative,” “morose,” “self-rejecting,” or just plain metaphorical, a manner of speaking, etc. But the deeper the experience of God a person has, the more zealous he/she is about proclaiming their “nothingness.” For the reality of God is such that all else truly fades into emptiness and there is only the Divine Fullness. And so with the rishis of the Upanishads we can pray: Lead me from the unreal to the Real…. More and more so. Deeper and deeper. Beyond and still beyond…. To the Furthest Shore…. With the great Sufi mystic, Mansur al-Hallaj, we will then say:
“I saw my Lord with the eyes of my heart;
I asked Him, Who art Thou? He said, Thou.”