Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe

Some time back I let go of the idea of a God who intervenes in human affairs. Such letting go liberated me to explore and develop alternative ways of thinking about God present and active in our lives and the world. Yet I have to admit that when I hear about tragic events in people's lives or terrible developments on the world stage (the current situation in Iraq, for example) I can find myself wanting to believe in a puppet-master God, a God who will intervene and make things right.

Of course, what's "right" often depends on different people's perspectives, which I think highlights the reality that a puppet-master God is a tribal God, a God of and for only a certain group of people and thus of their perspective only. I have to believe that humanity has, by and large, evolved beyond belief in such a God.

A loving and transforming energy

I've come to experience God not as a puppet master but as a loving and transforming energy deeply embedded within all aspects of creation. As humans we have the ability, and the choice, to open ourselves to this sacred energy, thereby becoming conduits of divine love and transformation in our own lives, in the lives of others, and in the wider world.

Such embodiment takes discipline and work, of course; a lot of work. I liken it to the discipline and dedication of a dancer, especially the dancer's striving for the balance and grace that comes from developing one's core. Indeed, it helps me to think of myself as a soul dancer, one dedicated to living from a well-developed and maintained spiritual core.

Of course, none of us can undergo and endure the rigors of spiritual development alone; we need to be part of a community of faith. At their best, such communities open us to and teach us about humanity's long history of wisdom with regards to recognizing and responding to the sacred within and beyond us. They also guide us in our discernment of the sacred and provide support and strength in our efforts to be communal and individual embodiments of divine love in a world often hostile to this love and its implications. These implications are to do with important and often interrelated realities, the grappling with which can cause polarization and division. These realities include social and economic arrangements and all kinds of often complex relationships we have with aspects of one's self, with others, and with the environment. Yet deal with all of these we must, while all the while remaining open to the guiding presence of the sacred within and among us.


This way of understanding God that I'm describing isn't new; it's always been with us – most clearly within the various mystical paths within the world's religions. Indeed, what many people understand to be "traditional religion," i.e., various forms of pietism and dogmatism, is actually a relatively recent development, and one that some would argue can obscure our true purpose, which is to be ever-unfolding and growing embodiments of God’s transforming love in the world. As Pope John XXIII famously said, “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.” And, yes, we're all part of that garden.

I appreciate Andrew Harvey's definition of the word "mystical." In an interview he gave to Mark Thompson for the book Gay Soul: Finding the Heart of Gay Spirit and Nature, Harvey says:

I mean by the word mystical entering into conscious direct relationship with the divine. It must be conscious and it must be direct to be mystical. Mystical is not theological; it's not having a series of ideas about God, however lucid or wonderful. It's not emotional; it's not having a series of feelings, however deep and adoring, about God. And it's not intellectual, in any sense, even in the most refined sense.

What it means is having direct contact in the soul, the core of being, with the Source. That can take place in many different ways, but its primary ways are through an opening of what people call the third eye. Through devotion, mystical prayer, and the saying of mantras, all the senses of the subtle body – the spiritual senses, if you like – wake up and begin to see and interpret the world in a completely fresh way.

The world remains the same but appears now drenched in light and transparent and is experienced far more like a magical film than as something inherently real. The ego stops interpreting and deforming, and you begin to see the primal, divine world in its pain and beauty and to respond to it with love of the soul, which is one with the love that creates all things. . . . A mystic is someone who sees God in all things and all things in God.

I've come to recognize core aspects of the mystical path as comprising humanity's deepest and truest religious traditions. Interestingly, these aspects, along with the insights of many indigenous spiritualities, are hallmarks of what we call "evolutionary spirituality." (1) These hallmarks invite us to see the created world and be in the created world in a certain – and, perhaps for some – ‘new’ way. Such seeing and being changes our way of thinking and talking about God. It facilitates a movement, a journey towards a way of being in the world that is more mindful and loving. That's a good and hopeful thing, for as theologian Karl Rahner once said: “The Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’ . . . or he[/she] will cease to be anything at all.”

Prayer in an evolutionary context

The invitation to embody such change has always been with us. I think of it as being embedded in our spiritual DNA. Our understanding of this invitation has been expanded and amplified in recent decades by what science is telling us about the evolving nature of the universe and the emergent complexity of all life. When we integrate such awareness and knowledge into our spiritual and religious worldview, we have the aforementioned type of spirituality known as evolutionary spirituality. (2)

How does this type of spirituality, one that recognizes we're part of an ever-unfolding universe and which thus is at odds with any type of puppet-master God, guide us in praying when we are confronted by violence and upheaval, such as we're witnessing in Iraq and elsewhere? Answers, or perhaps better yet, responses can be found in William Cleary's book Prayers to an Evolutionary God. This helpful resource, inspired by the spiritual and scientific teachings of Diarmuid O'Murchú and Teilhard de Chardin, offers "prayer that is relevant in a scientific world." It does this, according to John F. Haught, by bringing "the insights of science into contact with the very heart of religious experience."

Desiring to respond in a prayerful way to the situation in Iraq, I found myself recently paging through Cleary's book one sleepless night. I found the following prayer, one of a number of Cleary's "prayers of questioning," to be particularly helpful and meaningful.

Holy Spirit of Evolution,
creator of the cosmos and its wonders,
how shall we deal with the insidious evil
– epidemic in world cultures and societies –
of human egotism,
cruel in its delusional ignorance
and destructive of human life and its environments?

Egotism produces war, crime, cruelty,
disappointment, isolation,
impoverishment, ignorance, illusion:
we are all too familiar with these.

In the end, along with all spiritualities of the world,
we must trust you, Silent Mystery,
and your evolutionary plan for us
unfolding at every moment.

We will come together in our pain,
to pool our wisdom and our energies of hope,
convinced that in the end, the very end,
all shall somehow be well.

May it be so.

I'll close by sharing William Cleary's commentary on the above prayer, a prayer that he entitles "Unfolding at Every Moment."

Where evil comes from – with all its resulting failure and heartbreak – is not something we can understand. Some of it arises from human choice, some comes from the natural evolutionary way of things (3), but most seems beyond human comprehension. Our hearts cry out for reasons; we seldom find them. Some kind of surrender is called for in every spirituality. [Theologian Diarmuid] O'Murchú speaks of "God's mysterious but wise plan." There is certainly solid evidence of order beneath whatever chaos we may encounter. "God is subtle but not malicious," in Albert Einstein's memorable phrase. However, string theory and quantum mechanics now postulate a pervasive uncertainty beneath any orderliness. There seems to be mystery at every level of reality.

Ultimately, we have no choice but to trust in the world around us, in the marvelous processes of nature that we observe daily, in the forces of healing at work in our bodies and in the earth's apparent ability to govern itself and even heal its wounds, in the ingenuity and heroism of our own human companions. Mystics by and large have been optimists. They lead the way.


(1) Under the auspices of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform I recently developed a workshop entitled "Companions on a Sacred Journey: An Introduction to Evolutionary Spirituality." (To learn more about this workshop and/or to schedule a presentation of it to your faith community, click here.) In this workshop I outline the characteristics or hallmarks of evolutionary spirituality by noting that such a spirituality . . .

• Encompasses a “theology of the cosmos” and thus a “theology of evolution” – a way of thinking and talking about God that recognizes and celebrates God’s presence and action within and through creation.

• Is mindful of and attuned to mystery, in particular the mystery of the sacred within all things.

• Is open and responsive to the questions posed by science and the unfolding reality of the universe.

• Places emphasis on inter-connectivity, inter-dependence, and the oneness of all creation.

• Is accepting of paradox and emphasizes “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

• Recognizes and celebrates that we are all participants in a “divine journey,” one that urges us to ever more inclusive states of being.

• Recognizes that we are in a time of transition and transformation, often understood as a “paradigm shift” in human consciousness. Because it calls for a fundamental change in our thoughts, perceptions, and values, this shift challenges us in how we think about and relate to God, the planet, each other, and all forms of human institutions, including the church.

(2) Evolutionary spirituality has been in the news lately, what with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), recently rebuking the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the U.S. for its exploration and promoting of evolutionary spirituality. Yet as Jason Berry points out, evolutionary spirituality draws from sources of theological reflection grounded both in the mystical path that winds through Christianity and in the writings of French Jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. "Pope Francis's remarks have often sounded compatible with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's concept of 'conscious evolution,'" writes Berry. "So why are American nuns in trouble for supporting it?" Berry's article offers some insightful answers, and is well worth reading.

(3) This statement by Cleary brings to mind Andrew Harvey's thoughts on the "terrible aspects" of God. Writes Harvey:

Everything we see or live is for me a shining forth of God, a radiance of the beloved, a radiance that can be terrible as well as beautiful, and sometimes both at once. There is a terrible aspect of God that cannot be avoided. There are hurricanes and plagues, there are collapses of civilizations and stars exploding in the darkness of space. There is agony on every level of creation. There is no joy without pain, no life without death. A mystic comes to learn to dance not only for creation but also for destruction – knowing that life and death are inseparable and part of the same process that transcends both.

Recommended Off-site Links:
A Review of Prayers to an Evolutionary God – Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat (Spirituality and Practice, 2012).
An Introduction to Evolutionary Spirituality (Part 3 in the "Countdown to Synod 2013" series) – Michael Bayly (The Progressive Catholic Voice, August 27, 2013).
The Evolution of Consciousness, God, and Prayer – Mark Gilbert (ConsciousBridge.com, February 23, 2010).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
May Balance and Harmony Be Your Aim
A Dance of Divine Light
The Soul Within the Soul
Within the Mystery, a Strange and Empty State of Suspension

Image 1: "The Rise of the Sacred Masculine" (detail). Artist unknown.
Image 2: From Men in Motion: The Art and Passion of the Male Dancer by François Rousseau.
Image 3: Amy Giacomelli.


Franco said...

Interesting meditation. It starts from lived experiences (explicitly public, maybe implicitly private) and then move to theology and furthermore to spirituality...

Catherine said...

Thanks for posting these thoughts, Michael. Andrew Harvey's words, especially, resonate with me.