|In the Catholic church (and other Christian communities) there are a few people who have been called to the cloistered life. These people live lives given to silence and pray, living as hermits. Around the world there are a total of several hundred of them. Here is a recent letter from one living in the woods of Texas.
Joyous Holy Days! Isn't Christmas happening every day as our newborn God-man is birthed within the innermost core of our being from moment to moment? There he makes love to us unceasingly in an intimate love affair as our own deepest and truest Self. Our consciousness is a participation in his own Divine consciousness. For me, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year is waking up in the present moment to this awesome reality of our divinization as free unearned gift. Christ is born not only among us and for us but more importantly within us where he allows us to experience who we really are -- "for us to live is Christ."
Since our birthing is happening in the present moment, a more appropriate greeting would be "Happy Now Year"! I doubt if the human family has a clue of how loveable we are just the way we are with all our warts and failings. Merton had it right when he experienced the reality that we are all "shining brighter than the sun" like Christ at his transfiguration. But his question remains: How do we tell that to people when they are absorbed in their ego consciousness and have never experienced "God living closer to them than they are to themselves" (Augustine)? The inner contemplative spiritual dimension in the human family is sadly lacking. We need to light that inner candle within people instead of cursing the darkness of their moral behavior. When we experience in contemplative prayer how our own deepest self is "Christ in us" we start behaving ourselves.
And if we fail to behave ourselves, we use the very pain of our failure to move closer to God by entering his merciful Presence. God uses everything in our favor -- even our sinfulness -- when we are aware that we are "not two" and intimately "oned" with him. Christ certainly didn't come to earth to eliminate pain and suffering but to surrender to and welcome his Father's love in all the happenings of his life. What really messes us up is our big judgmental ego -- . illusionary counterfeit self -- which we confuse with our True Self
At the deepest level, we are everyone else when our ego is out of the way and does not impose individuality on us. It absolutely blows our mind to realize we will never cease to be and keep growing closer and closer to an infinite God who is inexhaustible. Our most primordial gift is Being in God's own existence created in his own image, the Alpha and Omega, where we never had a beginning and will never have an end. Makes me think of St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) and his book the "Life of Moses" where he elaborates on his idea of "external progress. " Gregory experiences our communion with God as a present happening right now on earth ("the kingdom of heaven is already within you") as a constant pilgrimage from "glory to glory"as we enter deeper and deeper into a love affair with our infinite God who is unlimited love. Our love for him keeps going on and on like the Energizer bunny and will have no end as it never stops deepening.
We are on an eternal journey in our never fully completed pilgrimage into the depths of God's infinity which can never be plumbed. Our journey then is in itself the arrival as we move step by step closer to God. This does away with the idea that contemplative union with God in heaven is a once-and-for-all perfect static entity. Sounds kind of boring. The only perfection available to us is found in our progress toward perfection. Is this progress our wholeness? "Be whole as your heavenly Father is whole." Fortunately we are constantly waking up to God's immeasurable self-giving love for us as he (the Hound of Heaven) is initiating our goodness within us and is the very source of our love for him.
He is seeking and loving himself within us. Why is it that most of us (even St. Francis) don't feel we love God very much? Merton answered that by saying it is a good thing for our ego to feel disappointed in ourselves and in our inability to love. Then he said we are able to give true love to God by becoming aware of his unconditional love for us. We become more confident in his loving mercy when we (ego) are weak and unloving. God's love for us becomes our love for him. Merton's famous line, "I not only make mistakes, I (ego) am a mistake," proves that he trusted solely in God's love and mercy and not in his own feelings of being a loving person.
Coming back to Gregory of Nyssa, what I ask myself is how can anyone remain in the hell they have already created for themselves on earth where they think they are in a permanent state of alienation from God if St. Gregory's "progress" theology is true? Fortunately this questions the whole idea of reward-punishment theology vis-a-vis God's unconditional unearned love for us. If God sees and loves himself within us he certainly doesn't love us because we are good but because he is good. We have both a goat and a sheep in us and God transforms us by seeing only his little child in us.
Unfortunately I find Christianity along with other world religions still permeated with our diseased false self (ego) trying to hoist reward-punishment (fear) theology on the human family. The ego blame-game started by Adam-Eve goes on and on. How do we fall in love with someone we fear? If he can toss us into eternal hell fire we better be afraid. That flies right in the face of what Christ was trying to tell us in his "good news" about the free gift (grace) of his unconditional love. I counted "Do not fear" in the Gospel 28 times. We might try to separate ourselves from God with our mind but it is impossible in reality for God to separate himself from us in whom he makes his home and in whom he sees and loves himself.
Like John Paul II, I think heaven, hell or purgatory are "states of being" on earth depending on how aware we are of our union with our indwelling God who is our truest and deepest consciousness. Hell on earth makes sense to me because we have the potential to identify with the illusion of a false self-centered ego which most people do. How miserable we make ourselves and how self-destructive we can be when we feel separated from God and sleepwalking our way through life as if we were mere individuals with no interconnection with God or others. It's the way our own ego punishes us and hopefully the pain will serve as a means to open our awareness to God's unitive presence within us. Then we are our True Self and not merely a separate ego. Hell and heaven begin on earth depending on how far away we are from God or how close we are to him. "The kingdom of heaven is already within us," so like St. Catherine we can make our "heaven all the way to heaven." It seems to me that heaven is a living personal intimate love relationship with the Trinity.
How many people in our materialistic ego-accomplishment oriented culture have an interior life and experience God's presence as their own deepest and truest Self? I notice via the grapevine that even Oprah is interested in spirituality following Eckhart Tolle. She understands the basics that she is more than her thoughts and feelings: Merton's Identity equals Who are you? Spirituality is still vibrant and relevant. Awakening to our True Self is imperative to our happiness and realizing how loveable we are then changes and transforms both our "thinking" and our behavior (morals). How we pray is how we live.
"All things are working together for good." God is alive and well abiding within us, loving us through thick and thin in all our ups and downs: the wild and exciting roller coaster of life. How often it puts our stomach up in our mouth even though we know "everything and everyone belongs."
I always like to balance Julian of Norwich's positive message -- "all is well, all will be well" -- with Anthony De Mello's insightful adage -- "Everything is a mess, yet all is well." It seems to be more realistic in explaining all the negative stuff that happens in our life, aggravated because we cling to our ego as if it was our god. Christ had his crucifixion and his resurrection (Paschal mystery) and so do we. "I live, no longer I (ego) but Christ lives in me." Death and rising are just two different sides of the same coin which is extremely valuable. Both are a treasure. Can our dualistic mind grasp this paradoxical truth? I doubt it, and unfortunately, that dualistic ego would seem to be where most people live. It's so common and accepted that we don't even recognize it as false.
People who point beyond ego to True Self are considered nut cases. All I can say is, "Go nuts." We need to light the inner candle of our divinized contemplative True Self rather than curse the darkness of our ego limitations. Then we can use our ego false self as a beautiful "epiphonia" and means to channel the Love (True Self) we really are.
"I want you to be one with the Father as I am one." That's the kingdom that's already here, and entered into through our contemplative awareness. Without the contemplative experience our ego-dominated culture has even penetrated the values of institutionalized religion. We seem to choose not to see how much our ego is involved in Christianity because everyone so readily accepts the veracity of this false self. The "genuine article" and "counterfeits" are different. When this polarity is readily accepted religion itself can then become more of the problem than the solution. It becomes an end rather than a means to union with God. Job security becomes an issue in the "churchy people" and they do not want to lose their position as "middle" men.
Mrs/Mr. God sees himself in us just like a mother does her child. When God said, "Love your neighbor as yourself" does that only mean we love another as much as ourself (ego) or as "another self"? (Identification of our "divine self" with his/her "divine self.") Another is my own deepest self. I think that a lot of what we call love nowadays is ego-liking or personality compatibility which De Mello calls "enlightened self interest." Not bad in itself, but certainly not the whole ball of wax that Christ is talking about when he shares unconditional "agape" self-giving love with us and asks us to do the same. Without experiencing agape love from God I doubt if we can give it to another.
That doesn't make ego-liking bad but certainly not enough to make us completely happy and fulfilled. If religion would encourage a direct experiential love relationship with God as a priority our true love for others would follow consequentially and automatically as agape -- unconditional love --for them as "another self" in whom we experience the same "Divine Being" as our own. Christianity is primarily about our intimate direct and personal love affair with God himself and not primarily about morality or how we are treating others. When we are experiencing our close love union with God in contemplation we have no difficulty being moral and treating others well as "another self." How we pray is how we live. Awakening to our union with God heals all things.
Letter from a hermit. January 2009.