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DOORS – Chapter Twelve

February 10, 2018

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Prayer

As I said in an earlier chapter, at a certain point I grew interested in the life of the mystics and desired to learn how they saw and experienced things. Reading through their works wasn’t easy, and I explained why, but that’s where I began to connect the dots.

Seeing how they progressed through various stages, what they learned about the reality of God and what they unlearned about the religious game is what helped me do the same.

I am calling it a religious game in reference to the pearly gate joke in the previous chapter. Of course it isn’t really a game, but a necessary stage of growth, yet one in which we religious folks can remain stuck.

Because it has all the right words and symbols, we tend to make it final and don’t bother to look further, but about this I have already said enough. So what’s the way out? If I were to sum it up in one word, it would be prayer.

But not all praying is the same, and much of it is part of the religious game, like the conversation the fellow was having with St. Peter. Our prayers reflect what we think about God, so I must explain what kind of prayer I am referring to.

What we mostly see and hear are vocal prayers, which can be eloquent, sincere, heartfelt and even moving, or shallow, repetitive and empty. The most common, usually reflects a transactional understanding of God and religion. By following certain rules, using certain words and taking on the right posture we can ask, plead or even argues on the basis of a supposed contract with God.

It can be like magic or incantation in that it tries to engage God’s power and overcome his reluctance to give what we are asking for. God could do it, but maybe he doesn’t want to or can’t, so we work with words, rituals and emotions to try and turn him to our favor.

Doesn’t sound very complimentary, maybe even a little pagan, but that’s where our first prayer instincts come from. Our first vocal prayers, in fact, reveal the perception of an external God, a supreme being that stands at some distance from us.

That is where we all start from and, in a sense, we are back to that analogy that I drew earlier with Santa and the presents, the metaphor of a supernatural fatherly figure who watches over us and rewards us if we’ve been good.

That view of God has its place and fills the need in our early stages of life. It even works, but mostly because we are actually dealing with ourselves through it, working our way out of our fears, doubts and reasoning about ultimate realities.

Verbally speaking to God, is a form of confession, of unburdening of ourselves which aligns us with a more positive and trusting attitude. It is especially necessary in group settings, for unity, as a witness and to bring attention where it is needed, as Jesus himself demonstrated.

I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it” (John 11:42)

So, vocal prayer has its place, but neither Jesus nor Paul or the mystics emphasized it as the heart of the matter. To them prayer was not transactional, to get things, but was dwelling in the new being, in Christ, the Father, for some even the Mother, whatever.

Prayer was abiding, dwelling, being there without struggling with words, and if we take Jesus’ as an example what do we see? That he often went to solitary places, alone, to pray. And if we want to follow Jesus and Paul’s advice on prayer, how could we use vocal prayer and let our words be few, do it in the secret of our rooms and yet without ceasing?

Obviously, they were speaking of a different type of prayer, one that is not merely transactional, and to ask God for things. “When you pray, do not babble on like pagans, for they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:7,8).

Then there is that famous line where Jesus says “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”, which clearly states that it has nothing to do with a place or its rituals “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:24).

This seeking of God in spirit and truth is apart and unconditioned by religious particularities, such as traditions, rituals, liturgical prayers and so forth. As such it stands apart from the most apparent forms of prayer.

It is prayer beyond prayers, prayer at its core and in its purest form. It is union, intimacy and oneness with God as Spirit, and not through the imagination. In the Christian tradition it was the Greek, Eastern and Desert Fathers who differentiated this type of prayer from others and described it as theoria (Greek) or contemplatio (Latin) from which came our term contemplation and contemplative prayer.

When Christianity became officially recognized, however, things ended up more on the level of mass acceptance, of what most people were used to, so vocal prayers became the predominant practice, while the contemplative types survived mainly among hermits and monks.

Contemplative prayer, however, is the way out of the game that I was speaking of, and because it brings a direct experience of God as Spirit, in us and with us. This then brings a change of perspectives and a shift in awareness and consciousness.

It is seeing with a different set of eyes. It is being, as opposed to merely talking about it. It is a different software for our inner processor and, when we do get the hang of it, we may also realize that we prayed even before knowing about prayer.

It can in fact be a spontaneous occurrence and it is the kind of prayer that can be done wherever, throughout the day and no matter what else we are doing. It is good to still set some time aside for it, but eventually it syncs with life as it is and becomes part of it.

Actually, it is life as it is, but it is living it from a different perspective, from a place beyond our thinking, judging and verbalizing. It is our link to what Paul called “Christ in me” or having “the mind of Christ”.

Even more specifically, he nailed it when saying “we do not know how we ought to pray, but the spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). So, we do not rationally or verbally know how to pray. That’s a fact, but we have this inner groaning, from Greek stenagmos, which means unutterable gushings of the heart.

Some have interpreted these “groans” as glossolalia, the speaking in tongues of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. Indeed, there is some relation between glossolalia and this interceding of the spirit, except that here it clearly speaks of something “too deep for words” or, as other translations put it, “which cannot be uttered”.

So there are no sounds here, except maybe the sighing of someone inwardly groaning for an exchange that is deeply real, but otherwise inexpressible. It is contemplative prayer and, if I were to use another metaphor for it, I would use that of lovemaking.

There is an undressing of appearances and self image, then the intimacy and the two becoming one, with sighing and groaning being the only possible expressions. Verbal faculties are more or less a distraction and so it is mainly a silent affair.

“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.” – Thomas Keating The soul that is called to a state of inward silence, should not encumber itself with vocal prayers” – Madame Guyon

Metaphors and why

The lovemaking metaphor is found all over scripture and is a favorite of many mystics. The very Bible ends on that note, with a wedding feast and a “bride saying, Come!” (Revelation 22:17), to the feast, ecstasy, union, heaven and the kingdom.

As effective as the metaphor is, it is still only a metaphor, a mean to something and not the very thing. The metaphor is effective, stirs the imagination and has power to move us, to carry us over, but over to what? That’s the biggie.

Let me make an example; a woman may be greatly comforted when imagining herself in the arms of Jesus. Think of the famous ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila by the sculptor Bernini. That imagination can actually bring her into partaking of what the metaphor represents.

By the same token, I believe that many celibate males preferred to imagine themselves in the arms of a loving mother, hence the cult of Mary, and here too we have plenty of beautiful art testifying to it.

This is the power of metaphors. They work. They can actually carry us over to experience profound realities, but metaphors have limits. They are a sort of an intermediary language that, when taken too literally, breaks down.

In fact, if we make the metaphor too exact and final, it may lead us to unpleasant conclusions. For example, if we are going through a difficult time, our feelings and emotions not up to par and our cherished metaphor fails to bring back the feelings it once gave us, we may conclude that the imagined lover or mother is now far from us.

Knowing of the many ways in which we fall short of our best intentions, we may begin to wonder if we did something that disappointed him/her and made us unworthy of his/her proximity. The metaphor, instead of helping us, is now making us project into God the way that we normally think about human relations. This is where it breaks down, as all metaphors do at some point.

Being and being

The fear of being separate from God, of having to somehow deserve his “coming down” to us, is deeply rooted in our psyche. It is our natural fear of being alone, separate, isolated and abandoned.

Many prayers work from that supposition and wrestle to close the gap, but it is an imaginary gap because, as theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “God is being-itself, not a being”, so there is no Subject-Object relation with God.

We are always connected to Him, at the very center of our own being, but because we cannot imagine it, we need metaphors, such as the bridegroom-bride one, to gradually bring us to experience it.

A clue on how to shift our understanding or pretended understanding on this, is to look at all the “I am” sayings of Jesus, and realize how they derived from the Old Testament self description of God as “I am that I am”.

I am was not the name of God, who refused to be objectified by a name or an image. Even the tetragrammaton (יהוה), which our bibles translate as Yahveh, if pronounced (which wasn’t allowed) mimics the sound of breath, a sign of being.

So I am is the proper description of God as being, not a being but being itself. And for those of you who may appreciate a deeper explanation, here are a few more lines from Paul Tillich:

The being of God is being-itself. The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. If God is a being, he is subject to the categories of finitude, especially to space and substance. Even if he is called the “highest being” in the sense of the “most perfect” and the “most powerful” being, this situation is not changed. When applied to God, superlatives become diminutives. They place him on the level of other beings while elevating him above all of them… As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings – the world… Being-itself infinitely transcends every finite being… On the other hand, everything finite participates in being-itself and in its infinity. Otherwise it would not have the power of being. It would be swallowed by nonbeing, or it never would have emerged out of nonbeing.”

Take a moment to think it over. It can help overcome some of our mental obstacles and dispels the distance that we imagine between us and God. We are not God, but none of us are ever disconnected from Him. If we were, we wouldn’t be.

We do sometimes feel separate from Him, but that is in our perception, not His and not real. Thinking that we must work, by deeds or by words, to draw Him back to us is the game that we get caught with in our minds.

If there is any work involved in overcoming our feelings of separation, it is not that of trying to change God‘s mind towards us, but that of changing our minds towards Him, of turning away from our illusions.

It is not God that moves away from us, but we, in our imagination. It is our perspective and change in perspective that alter our emotions and imagination about God, not His. He never changes or moves away from us; if He did we would die instantly.

This issue of perspectives reminds me of those three-dimensional cards that, as you move them, reveal different images. So it is the same card and the same reality, like having the same life and the same God, but everything changes when we shift perspectives.

Various mystics experienced in real life this ability to switch perspectives. They could actually see what none else could, and similar things have been recounted also by people on the threshold of death, undergoing major traumas, loss of normal cognition or even under the effect of mind altering substances.

Of course there are differences here and I was only speaking of such changes as are needed for and occur through prayer. These other mystical, supernatural, trauma related or chemically induced changes of perception are nonetheless interesting and we can learn from them.

There are actual studies on them, and someone who researched the phenomena was Joseph Campbell, who wrote:

The LSD phenomenon, on the other hand, is—to me at least—more interesting. It is an intentionally achieved schizophrenia, with the expectation of a spontaneous remission—which, however, does not always follow. Yoga, too, is intentional schizophrenia: one breaks away from the world, plunging inward, and the ranges of vision experienced are in fact the same as those of a psychosis. But what, then, is the difference? What is the difference between a psychotic or LSD experience and a yogic, or a mystical? The plunges are all into the same deep inward sea; of that there can be no doubt. The symbolic figures encountered are in many instances identical. But there is an important difference. The difference—to put it sharply—is equivalent simply to that between a diver who can swim and one who cannot. The mystic, endowed with native talents for this sort of thing and following, stage by stage, the instruction of a master, enters the waters and finds he can swim; whereas the schizophrenic, unprepared, unguided, and ungifted, has fallen or has intentionally plunged, and is drowning.”

After my near death experience I was also drowning in the magnitude of it all, incapable to reconnect to life as it normally appeared. Christianity rescued me from that, then I learned to swim in it and out of its parochial forms. Then I discovered the universal ocean that it pointed to and I could revisit what I once experienced, but this time I had a guide and I wasn’t drowning anymore.

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