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Truly Thou art a Hidden God.
On Walking in Darkness.
I have been remembering my dreams. I take this to mean that I am sleeping deeply enough to do so. This hasn’t been the case for a long time. At the risk of being indelicate, I have been dreaming of women. Both women I have actually known from my past and some apparently entirely confabulated from my unconscious—or from wherever dreams arise. It is curious, but actually quite understandable, that this would be so as I accustom myself to live in the Monastery. The world still calls me, because it is so fully in me.
I have assumed from my youth that I would get married and have a family. Here I am, though, now firmly ensconced in middle age, looking into becoming a monk. Is it any surprise this lost hope for the intimacy of human love would manifest itself in dreams?
Last night though, I had a different dream, but one that hews to the same theme of the weight of the past and nostalgia.I dreamt I had to say my farewells to some friends I knew in high school. It was at a formal event and I pulled up in a kind of delivery truck. These are people I haven’t seen in decades or even been in contact with. They were, however, close friends at one time in my youth.
In the dream, I was in hurry to get to them to say goodbye. I was even in tears. Though these friends from long ago didn’t seem all that moved or even concerned with my emoting. What am I to take from this?
Psalm 88 comes to mind. It is, I believe, the one psalm that doesn’t end in some kind of hope in rescue. The ending in particular gets at what the dream seems to be saying to me. There are a number of different translations that give the Psalm a different gist. I will choose the NIV as the one that gets the closest to the meaning I am groping for. The last two stanzas go as follows:
But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. 14Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? 15From my youth I have suffered and been close to death; I have borne your terrors and am in despair. 16Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. 17All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. 18You have taken from me friend and neighbor— darkness is my closest friend.
Let that sink in: Darkness is my closest friend.
I have also seen it rendered as “Darkness is my only friend.” Which is even more dramatic. This darkness is a state we try to downgrade to depression, so we can escape its more troubling implications. This darkness is something we are supposed to keep to ourselves; or have shed once out of our teenage years; or at worst, as something better left between ourselves and our therapists; or maybe—okay, okay—perhaps some medication is in order? And yet, this is a sentiment of darkness not uncommon throughout the Psalms, even if the experience of remaining there is unique to psalm 88. Either way, it is not uncommon in our lives.
In fact, this is something I have grappled with for many years. I have hidden it from others with a continual volley of jokes, or in a fog of ponderous intellectualism.But still, alone in the wee hours, I ask: Where are you, God? Are you even there? If you are there, why do you seem to do nothing while I suffer? Why do you seem to do nothing while the world descends further into chaos and strife? Why do you hide?
Really, what is the difference between a hidden God and one that simply is a concoction of my imagination?
Whatever the answer, there is surely some kind of Abyss waiting for us all. We may not like it, we may fervently attempt to distract ourselves from it, but only a moment’s reflection and we know this Abyss to be trueand unavoidable.
I think of Friedrich Nietzche’s well-trod quote, “[I]f you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you." Nietzche, famously, went mad. There could be many different reasons for that. I will choose, as if out of a hat, the following interpretation: that he stared into the Abyss and saw the Abyss in himself, which drove him mad. God is dead—the truth is dead—so now, there was only the Abyss…and it broke him. It can break us too, and at least as easily as it did him. Which is something we probably don’t want to admit to ourselves. But I have been broken by it more times than I can count. It is, whether we like it or not, the primary condition of the modern and postmodern human.We have institutionalized it, and in so doing have generated massive profits for those who can distract, dull or entertain us into forgetting.
As if by way of an answer, I started reading a most excellent introduction to St. John of the Cross.I cannot recommend this book highly enough for those interested in the path of silent prayer—or contemplative prayer, whatever you may call it—or in his theology, or both.
Let’s start with St John of the Cross on the hiddenness of God:
You do very well, O soul, to seek him ever as one hidden, for you exalt God and approach very near him when you consider him higher and deeper than anything you can reach. Hence pay no attention, neither partially or entirely, to anything your faculties can grasp. I mean that you should never seek satisfaction in what you understand about God, but in what you don’t understand about him. Never pause to love, and delight in your understanding and experience of God, but love and delight in what you cannot understand or experience of him. Such is the way, as we said, of seeking him in faith. However surely it may seem that you find, experience and understand God, because he is inaccessable and concealed you must always regard him as hidden, and serve him who is hidden in a secret way. —The Spriritual Canticle.
God is not hidden, as if he is playing some kind of dirty trick on us, but rather because he cannot be anything other than hidden. His hiddenness is not something that someday will be removed, but for now remains until we pull ourselves together. He is essentiallyhidden and will remain so, certainly in this life, probably forever. For God to be God he must not only be incomprehensible but incomprehensibly incomprehensible. We would be satisfied with nothing less. St. John of the Cross refers to God as Nada—No Thing. In that sense, not only would we be unsatisfied with anything less than an unfathomable God, but that we are only satisfied by a God who is Nothing. We are sick and bloated on so many dissatisfying “somethings”. Why would a “something” God be any different?
St. John lays out the path, what he calls the Abyss of faith:
Faith nullifies the light of the intellect, and if this light is not darkened, the knowledge of faith is lost….Faith, manifestly, is a dark night to souls, but in this way it gives them light. The more darkness it brings on them, the more light it sheds. For by blinding, it illumines them. —The Ascent to Mount Carmel.
And perhaps even more radically:
They must also darken and blind themselves in that part of their nature that bears relation to God and spiritual things….the rational and higher part of their nature….The soul must perfectly and voluntarily empty itself—I mean in its affection and will—of all the earthly and heavenly things it can grasp. It must do this insofar as it can. As for God, who will stop him from accomplishing his desire in the soul that is resigned , annihilated, and despoiled. —The Ascent to Mount Carmel.
This path of being annihilated is the path of unknowing. The paltry words we have at our disposal can never fully describe this path, if it can at all. We can only walk it by remaining still. Or rather, the Way which can be spoken of isn’t the true Way.
Nietzche's mistake, dare I say, when staring into the Abyss, was in trying to stop himself from falling in. The Abyss is coming for us in one way or another. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in the Abyss, but the Abyss is surely interested in you. Holding back, seeking terra firma, where there is none, will only delay, and probably radically increase our suffering. The only option is to leap into the Abyss by keeping still in unknowing. By a painfully open receptivity to God's luminous darkness. Even if, or especially if, all our instincts tell us to run away.
It may seem that this is to abdicate the beauty of the world in a kind of dark emptiness. How is this different than nihilism?I was relieved to read that St. John of the Cross was greatly appreciative of natural beauty. I can only speculate, but we may only truly see the true beauty of creation on the other side of this dark emptiness. That it isn’t other than this emptiness. Our inability to truly see creation for what it is (and isn’t) inclines us to turn the world into a mere resource to be exploited, as a standing reserve, or to some an object of worship.
In the Orthodox Hymn to the Holy Spirit we sing that the Spirit is, “everywhere present and filling all things”. This is in no way incompatible with the Abyss of Faith that St. John of the Cross describes. Rather it may be the only sure path to seeing the truth of this ever-present Spirit. We can see it only in the darkness of our rational minds, in the suspension of a rationality that seeks to create petty systems of abstraction and control: of ourselves, each other and of the natural worl. St John lays out a different path.
In meditating on 6:24-34 every day since arriving here, I have to think that the path of becoming like the birds of the air, and the Lillies of the field, begins in the darkness13 of the Abyss of Faith. I can only speculate, of course, but in this, I find great hope.
Every morning at Matins we chant The Benedictus Dominuswhich ends as follows:
Through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the day-spring on high hath visted us. To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace.
St. John of the Cross offers a similar promise in one of his short poems. The promise of Stillness, of coming Home. I will let him have the final word:
In darkness, and secure, by the secret ladder, disguised, --ah, the sheer grace!-- in darkness and concealment, my house being now all stilled.
From the Greek, meaning, “the pain of returning home” or homesickness. Where is home?
Or, sadly, all too often a mere pseudo-intellectualism.
Whatever human truth could possibly mean in the face of the Abyss.
This means, alas, pretty much all of us.
Saint John of the Cross: Master of Contemplation. By Fr. Donald Haggerty. A most excellent read.
God is Superessential, i.e., an Essence beyond all Essence.
“If you understood him, it would not be God.” -St. Augustine of Hippo.
The Cloud of Unknowing is one of my all-time favorite books. In contrast to St. John of the Cross, who can be very formal and quite serious, the tone of the anonymous author of The Cloud is informal, avuncular, familiar, and at times even jovial. I imagine I will have something more to say about the Cloud in the future. I recommend the translation (from Middle English) by Carmen Acevedo Butcher.
The Tao Te Ching, of course.
It may be less about nihilism per se, but about which nihilism you choose. The nihilism of death and despair or the nihilism of life, hope, and beauty. Though maybe it isn’t quite that simple.
Admittedly, that sounds rather Buddhist. But is it wrong for that? I tend to think it is so, but I will not defend this point too strenuously.
A term from Heidegger that gets bandied about. I make no pretense to have read or even understood much of Heidegger. It is a useful term.