Sunday, July 27, 2014


"...if you are to penetrate your own silence and dare to advance without fear into the solitude of your own heart, and risk the sharing of that solitude with the lonely other who seeks God through you and with you, then you will truly recover the light and the capacity to understand what is beyond words ... it is the intimate union in the depths of your own heart, of God's spirit and your own secret inmost self, so that you and He are in all truth One Spirit."  --  Thomas Merton *

Every time I read the teachings of a mystic, I feel a kinship on many levels, but I also run up against a wall.  The kinship comes from the fact that mystics experience the presence of God in their lives.  The wall comes from the fact that the mystical experience is so often described as a union with God:  "God and I are one."  I don't think that way.  To me, God is God, and I am me.  I can't imagine ever saying that God and I are one.  However, recent reflections have allowed me to understand a little better what all these mystics, like Merton, are talking about.

I have increasingly become aware that there are two very different voices in my head.  Now don't worry about my sanity, just yet.  When I say voices, I mean more like kinds of thought.  But these different kinds of thought are so very distinct from each other that I will call them voices.  One is very quiet -- almost too quiet.  It is easily disregarded because it is so quiet.  I'm not even really sure you can call it a voice or a thought; if it's even heard, it's more like an idea that pops into your head.  It says things like:  Go this way;  Do that;  Take that with you; etcIt gives simple directions in the present moment.  The second voice, in contrast, is very loud, and sometimes, is all I can hear.  It says things like:  I can't do that; That was mean; She is an exceptional woman; That will become a problem some day; I did that really well; I've made so many mistakes; etc.  This voice judges, makes comparisons, thinks about the future and the past, and is always accompanied by a positive or negative feeling.  There is another voice, with a volume level closer to the quiet one, in me as well:   it's the one I'm using now, the one that asks questions, wonders about life, reasons through problems unemotionally, and says Yes or No to the thoughts that come to mind.  There may also be other voices, but I'd like to focus this blog posting on the first two.

What I've noticed lately, is that when I listen to that quiet voice and do what it tells me right away, my life is simpler, runs eminently smoother, and I am happier.  But when I say "No" to that voice, or I say "Later," my life gets complicated and unhappy.  When I listen to it, I feel grateful; when I don't, I feel regret.  The opposite happens when I listen to the loud voice and assent to what it says:  my life becomes complicated, unhappy, and full of regrets;  and when I don't listen to it, I am relieved and grateful.

I have written before about not trusting my first inclinations.  But that's because my first, and most natural, inclination is to deny the quiet voice (to say "No" and "Later") and listen to the loud one.   I am, unfortunately, a very slow learner, but lately I've made some progress.  I think that's because I've realized its connection to my happiness.  I'd like to get better at listening to that quiet voice.

Where does it come from?

Sigmund Freud described three kinds of personality, at varying levels of consciousness, familiarly labeled the ego, id, and superego, which are driven by what he called The Pleasure Principle.  But that's not exactly what I'm describing.  While Freud's "ego" is somewhat like that third voice I described above -- the voice of reason -- his "id" and "superego" are both found in that loud voice which desires and judges with great emotional attachment.  So were does that leave the quiet voice?

As I've said, I've only recently become aware of it, begun to "hear" it, but I think it's been there for a very long time.  The first time I had the barest inkling of being guided, I thought it must be what artists experience when they are listening to their muse.  Writers say that they sometimes do not know where their characters came from, they just appeared.  All they had to do was be attuned to their muse to create wonderful art.  That's what I experienced that first time.  But I only realized it after the fact, after all of the connecting pieces fell into place, so to speak.  And that is primarily how I've noticed this guidance since then:  after the connections to my own private thoughts have become apparent. 

This guidance has always felt entirely external to me.  Events happen, people say something to me, and books have a way of jumping out at me, that unexpectedly address my most private concerns.  Since I don't believe that I have the ability to subconsciously create the world around me (make these events, people, and books appear in front of me), I attribute this guidance to God.  Only God can bring these things into my life just when I need them.  All I have to do is listen and accept them.

However, that act of listening to and accepting what comes into my life is very similar to the act of listening and assenting to the quiet voice within me.  Only the content is different.  What I generally recognize as God's Holy Spirit speaking to me through the words of other people is, not surprisingly, more wordy than what I hear in that quiet inner voice.  Those words are also more like observations than directions.  But then again, the guidance that comes from external happenings is also different.  Then there are no words, only events, which I must then interpret.  So I wonder... Could this quiet, almost unconscious, inner voice also come from God?  Is this the "God in us" spoken of by the mystics?

It's possible.  One test for whether something comes from God is whether it bears good fruit, and this quiet inner voice certainly bears very good fruit.

So, is there anything I can do to become more attuned to it?

Many people of faith talk or write about practicing the presence of God.  I've done this as well -- most recently in my last posting regarding journaling -- but from personal experience, I know that I cannot make this guidance appear at will.  No amount of active searching on my part will yield what I'm looking for when it comes to God's guidance.  In fact, doing that may lead me down the wrong path.  God's guidance comes unexpectedly, in God's own way and God's own time, according to God's own will.  It is pure gift.  All I can do is be open to whatever comes.

However, learning to shush that loud, judging, comparing, worrying voice is a step in the right direction, I think.  For, in the peace and quiet that remains, it is much easier to hear my Muse.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you always,


* from "Merton's Place of Nowhere," by James Finley, pg. 109    

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


"If we would return to God, and find ourselves in Him, we must reverse Adam's journey, we must go back by the way he came."  --  Thomas Merton*

In the Spring, I applied to a school for people interested in becoming spiritual directors.  Recently, I met with two of the principals of the school, to learn a little more about the program and its requirements.  Among other things, they asked me to keep a journal and to write a spiritual autobiography.  Both of these activities are already a big part of my life:  I started keeping a daily journal five years ago, and the book I've been working on for the last couple of years is essentially a spiritual autobiography.  So I started to wonder a little more about why these introspective activities are so important for the spirit.

Journaling gives me the opportunity to be quiet and reflect on my concerns, questions, or just review the day's events.  But more importantly, journaling also makes it easier for me to see God's presence in my life.  I've noticed that the busier I get, going and doing, and the less time I take to stop and center myself in my life, the less aware I become of God.  Whereas the more time I take to journal, the more aware I become of God.  (Finding the right balance is a little tricky sometimes!)  I've noted this fact in previous postings, but now I began to wonder why.  What is it about journaling that allows me to more easily notice God's presence?

Journaling has been called a form of prayer, or meditation.  Why?  What exactly is prayer?

Prayer is telling God (either aloud or silently) what is on our mind or on our heart.  It is thanking God, asking for help, or simply expressing wonderment.  But...and hears the kicker... God already knows our innermost being, already knows what is on our mind and hearts before we even know it ourselves.  God already knows what we need before we even ask.  So what does prayer do, if it doesn't tell God what we need God to know?

Perhaps, prayer tells us what we need to know, about ourselves.  Perhaps prayer opens our heart to our own life.  That is certainly what journaling does for me.  I become more aware of what's going on inside me, inside my mind and my heart.  And with that newfound clarity, with that open heart, I am able to notice when events in the world around me address those specific thoughts and feelings.   These connections between my innermost thoughts and the external events in my life are, I believe, how God reveals his will to me, and guides me.  But I would miss this entirely if I did not first tune into my life through journaling, or some other form of contemplative prayer.

Writing a spiritual autobiography is a little different, but it too is a revelation.  So much so that I sometime wonder if I'm writing my book more for my own benefit than for the benefit of other people.  For I always learn something new whenever I try to understand my past.

Like journaling, writing a spiritual autobiography requires you to examine your innermost thoughts and feelings.  Behind the basic events in your life... the who, what, when, where, and how, there is the why:  your reasons, your understanding of things, your intentions, motivations, etc.  Analyzing the "why" is not always easy.  I've discovered that there are sometimes many reasonable explanations for why I did something or thought something, but only one is the truth.  Sometimes I have to dig behind a lot of reasonable reasons (a.k.a. excuses) to find that truth.  And maybe the reason why that is is because the truth requires admitting that I made a mistake, that I was wrong or did something wrong.  It means revealing parts of myself that I don't particularly like, that I'd rather keep hidden.

Can I be truly honest?  I think so. 

Thomas Merton wrote, "The mother of all lies is the lie we persist in telling ourselves about ourselves."  (ibid, pg 46)   He saw in the story of Adam and Eve a perfect illustration for our common human identity crisis:  we don't listen to God either because we are far from God, or because we don't want to listen to God; either way, we do what we know we aren't supposed to do, and then we make up excuses for our actions -- "he/she made me do it."  Essentially we hide and try best to cover up our mistake, our truth. We can't even look at our own nakedness, let alone reveal it to others.  The more outer "clothing" we pile on to cover our truth and make ourselves look great, to other people and ourselves -- success, power, beauty, material goods, admirable work, adventures, etc. -- the further we get from our true selves and from the person God created us to be.

The only way to get back to that person is to peel away those layers of false self.  And the only way to do that is to take an honest look at ourselves.  Journaling is one way to start.  Examining where you are today, each day, honestly, privately to yourself, will begin to open your heart to God's presence.  And you will find in that presence, as I have, a patient and steadfast love that will allow you to continue peeling away the layers of false self, until you can even be honest before the whole world.

That is a pearl beyond price.  Knowing who you really are and that God is with you and for you, loving you beyond all human reckoning, is a story definitely worth telling.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you 


*  from "Merton's Place of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self," by James Finley, pg. 37