Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Just" God

“God is at home, it’s we who have gone out for a walk.” (Meister Eckhart)

Why is it that so many insist on adding a possessive pronoun to any reference to God? Increasingly, it seems, published prayers and prayer leaders place “my,” “your,” or “our” in front of any reference to God.

“We now bring our prayers to our God...”
“May your personal God give you blessings in your life...”
“As you sit in the presence of your God...”
“The blessings that my God has given to me...”
“I invite you to pray to your God and our God so that...”

Somehow it appears to have become necessary to amend any reference to God, as if the simple word “God” has become too remote, or too limiting, or too great. Or perhaps people just don’t think about any of this too much and have habitually begun to think of God as simply one thing among many things in their lives. My God, your God, our God... What’s the difference? It doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s just one of the many elements in my life, and every once in a while I think about it, just like I think about lots of other “things” during the course of my day.

Is it that difficult to realize that we are inadvertently domesticating (i.e., controlling) a reality that is not tameable? (For those who remember the Narnia Chronicles: “He’s not a tame lion, you know.”) Some poor and inadequate analogies: It’s as if a person were seen solely through the chemical makeup of a single one of his/her cells. It’s as if we judged the nature of the universe through what we saw by looking up at the sky during one minute of the day. It’s as if we were stuck in a cave looking at flickering images on the wall, the shadows of things behind us and unaware of the realities of the world outside, let alone the things making the shadows (apologies to Plato). The point was perhaps best indicated by Annie Dillard in one of her essays:

“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? ... Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

Now Annie does something different - she uses “the” in front of “god.” That’s a bit better, since it indicates a single reality, not one among many. But most mystics and holy folks dive more deeply and, when they refer to God at all, use the word “God” by itself … with care, humility, and trepidation, because even “the” indicates a reality that we can somehow define or encompass or comprehend. No wonder that the Hebrew Scriptures refer to God with “YHWH” and resist pronouncing the word at all, substituting Adonai or Jehovah instead. God’s true name is simply too holy to blithely throw around, even in a prayer.

There’s something important about all of this, but it continues to escape my full comprehension. Meister Eckhart helps a bit: “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Those pronouns “my”, “your”, “our” and all the rest should be turned inside out. God does not belong to me or to us, I and we belong to God, yet we remain trapped in our own perspective. When we pray, truly pray, we begin to glimpse something of God’s true life; right now, right here, right away. We peek through the door, as it were, and are blinded by what we see. The temptation then is to call that “my door” and pretend that it adequately represents what lies behind it. In reality … in reality, it remains a mystery to me, and it’s best to simply acknowledge that. This may be sufficient, even beneficial.

The only thing I’m sure of is that I will never be able to speak of God with any pronoun attached; I can only hope and pray for my own growing, awkward attachment towards God.

Finally, God is nothing when compared to everything else we might know, love, understand, or pursue. I invite you to dive into the deep end of that reality with St. John of the Cross (1542 - 1591):

To come to the pleasure you have not
You must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way in which you know not.
To come to the possession you have not
You must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
You must go by a way in which you are no