In anticipation of Easter, today we are excerpting from Into The Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird. Laird’s truly beautiful book shows that the Christian tradition of contemplation has its own refined meditation teachings similar to the Hindus and Buddhists. He brings together the ancient wisdom of the Christian East and West to help us find God in the depths of our hearts. May his words help you find peace this Easter, no matter what religion you are.
Parting the Veil: The Illusion of Separation from God
If the doors of perception were cleansed
Everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. – William Blake
A young prisoner cuts himself with a sharp knife to dull emotional pain. ‘As long as I can remember,” he says, “I have had this hurt inside. I can’t get away from it, and sometimes I cut or burn myself so that the pain will be in a different place and on the outside.” Acknowledging this to himself, he decided to approach the Prison Phoenix Trust, whose aim is to address the spiritual needs of prisoners by teaching them how to pray, how to turn their prison cells into monastic cells. After learning how to meditate and practicing it twice a day for several weeks, the young prisoner speaks movingly of what he has learnt. “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and at night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself that I can like.”
Another prisoner discovers he is becoming more human and realizes in the process, ‘All beings, no matter how reactionary, fearful, dangerous or lost, can open themselves to the sacred within and become free. I have become free even in prison. Prison is the perfect monastery.”
The spiritual liberation of which these prisoners speak is not something they acquired. The dear sense of their testimony is that they discovered, rather than acquired, this “sacred within.” The distinction between acquisition and discovery may seem like hairsplitting, but it is important to see that what the one prisoner calls the “sacred within” did not come from some place outside him. The contemplative discipline of meditation, what I will call in this book contemplative practice, doesn’t acquire anything. In that sense, and an important sense, it is not a technique but a surrendering of deeply imbedded resistances that allows the sacred within gradually to reveal itself as a simple, fundamental fact. Out of this letting go there emerges what St. Paul called our “hidden self”: “may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong” (Eph 3:16). Again, contemplative practice does not produce this “hidden self” but facilitates the falling away of all that obscures it. This voice of the liberated hidden self, the “sacred within,” joins the Psalmist’s, “Oh, Lord, you search me and you know me It was you who created my inmost self. . . . I thank you for the wonder of my being” (Ps 138 (9):1, 13, 14).
Through their experience of interior stillness these prisoners unwittingly have joined a chorus of saints and sages who proclaim by their lives that this God we seek has already found us, already looks out of our own eyes, is already, as St. Augustine famously put it, “closer to me than I am to myself.” “O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,” he continues, “you were within and I was outside myself.”
…Union with God is not something that needs to be acquired but realized. The reality which the term “union” points to (along with a host of other metaphors), is already the case. The unfolding in our lives of this fundamental union is what St. John of the Cross called “the union of likeness.” It is our journey from image to likeness (Gen 1:26).
Acquisition and its strategies obviously have a role in life. It is important to pursue and acquire good nutrition, reasonable health, a just society, basic self-respect, the material means by which to live, and a host of other things. However, they don’t have a real role in the deeper dynamics of life. For example, they play no role in helping us to die or to become aware of God. Dying is all about letting go and letting be, as is the awareness of God.
People who have traveled far along the contemplative path are often aware that the sense of separation from God is itself pasted up out of a mass of thoughts and feelings. When the mind comes into its own stillness and enters the silent land, the sense of separation goes. Union is seen to be the fundamental reality and separateness a highly filtered mental perception. It has nothing whatever to do with the loss of one’s ontological status as a creature of God, nothing to do with becoming an amorphous blob. Quite the opposite, it is the realization this side of death of the fundamental mystery of our existence as the creation of a loving God. “Of you my heart has spoken, ‘seek His face’” (Ps 27:8). “For God alone my soul in silence waits” (Ps 62:1,6). “God is your being, and what you are you are in God, but you are not God’s being.” “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Once this depth dimension of life emerges, New Testament resonances, especially with John and Paul, reach the whole world (Ps 19:4). John’s Gospel is well known for its concern for this divine indwelling. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you” (Jn 14:20). “May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us.” (Jn 17:21).
…Whatever this “Christ-living-in-me” is, and it is most assuredly not a particular thing, it holds true for each of us. My Christ-self is your Christ-self, our enemy’s Christ-self (2 Cor 10:7). A helpful image to express this sort of thing is a wheel with spokes centered on a single hub. The hub of the wheel is God; we the spokes. Out on the rim of the wheel the spokes are furthest from one another, but at the center, the hub, the spokes are most united to each other. They are a single meeting in the one hub. The image was used in the early church to say something important about that level of life at which we are one with each other and one with God. The more we journey towards the Center the closer we are both to God and to each other. The problem of feeling isolated from both God and others is overcome in the experience of the Center. This journey into God and the profound meeting of others in the inner ground of silence is a single movement. Exterior isolation is overcome in interior communion.
Those who sound alarms regarding the realization of the contemplative path as being anticommunity reveal a shocking ignorance of this simple fact: the personal journey into God is simultaneously ecclesial and all-embracing. This in part is why people who have gone fairly deeply into the contemplative path, become open and vital people (however differently they may live this out). In this depthless depth we are caught up in a unity that grounds, affirms, and embraces all diversity. Communion with God and communion with others are realizations of the same Center. And this Center, according to the ancient definition, is everywhere. “God is that reality whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
…Some who are tediously metaphysical might worry that all this talk of union with God blurs the distinction between Creator and creation. Far from blurring this distinction it sets it in sharper focus. John’s Gospel says we are the branches and Christ is the vine. (Jn 15:5). The branches are not separate from the vine but one with it. If the branch is cut off, you won’t have a branch, for it soon shrivels away. A branch is a branch insofar as it is one with the vine. From the branch’s perspective it is all vine. Speaking of this transformation of consciousness that marks the moving into awareness of our grounding union with God, Meister Eckhart says, ‘All things become pure God to you, for in all things you see nothing but God.” John of the Cross speaks along similar lines. “It seems to [the soul] that the entire universe is a sea of love in -which it is engulfed, for, conscious of the living point or center of love within itself, it is unable to catch sight of the boundaries of this love.” When life is lived from “the center,” as John of the Cross terms it, all of life seems shot through with God.
We might liken the depths of the human to the sponge in the ocean. The sponge looks without and sees ocean; it looks within and sees ocean. The sponge is immersed in what at the same time flows through it. The sponge would not be a sponge were this not the case. Some call this differentiating union: the more we realize we are one with God the more we become ourselves, just as we are, just as we were created to be. The Creator is outpouring love, the creation, the love outpoured.
Union with God respects all distinctions between creation and Creator and is characterized by awareness of the presence and the transparency of perceived boundaries. When our awareness loosens its arthritic grip to reveal a palm open and soft, awareness is silent and vast in the depths of the present moment. As Meister Eckhart put it, “The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge and one love.” John of the Cross expresses the same mystery. “The soul that is united and transformed in God breathes God in God with the same divine breathing with which God, while in her, breathes her in himself.” This is the revelation of stillness.
When our life in God washes onto the shores of perception we see no image or shape, no holy pictures or statues, nothing for thinking mind’s comprehending grip. We know undeniably, like the back of our hand, the silent resounding of a great and flowing vastness that is the core of all. Words cannot express it (2 Cor 12:4). No tongue has sullied it. Such is the impenetrable silence in which we are immersed. Yet this silence cleanses the mind and unbinds the tongue. “I will sing, I will sing your praise. Awake my soul. Awake lyre and harp. I will awake the dawn” (Ps 56:7-8).