A Walk In The Woods: Light That Yet To Us Is Dark

20171113 A WALK IN THE WOODS LIGHT THAT YET TO US IS DARK

A continuing reflection on that nocturnal walk in the woods, near Capel Curig in Wales: Last time (see here for that journal entry) I had ambled through the woods to two arched trees that seemed to form a doorway.

As children, I and my friends had called these two trees Drws i fyd arall (pronounced ‘droo zi fid arrah’) which means ‘door to another world. Such was the imagination of us as children, and an indication of the games we used to play. Even as an adult, I still call these two wonderful trees Drws i fyd arall, for that is what they are to me and to those who can see with a childlike spirit.

And so, I’m sitting on a felled log looking at these two remarkable trees. And, I wait. It’s now well after 1 am. I can hardly see. It’s dark. Against my hands and face, the temperature is, oh so cold. I’m alone, except for unknown, nearby animals scurrying around in the undergrowth. Otherwise alone. Or am I?

I’m in awe in this sacred place, at this sacred time. It is liminal. It is, to me, a ‘thin place’. And, I wait. And wait, some more.

An encounter?

Random thoughts vie for superiority. And in seeking to still them, or at least not give them prominence, I wait for an encounter. But, how to recognise an encounter?

There is an ancient story about a man on the run. Hiding, and in fear of his life he seeks an encounter with That Which Is Bigger Than Us, bigger than him. In his rational mind he assumes that the Source of All would come as a mighty wind, a huricane. A storm rages and rocks are shattered into pieces, but it is only a violent storm.

Then a most dreadful earthquake struck and the ground shook, but the Source of All was not encountered in that massive earthquake. And then, a huge fire arose. Whether it was a volcano spewing forth magma or fire from a cleft in between rocks on the ground that opened up, is lost in antiquity. But we do now that the Source of All was not encountered in that great and ferocious fire. The story then goes on to record that the seeker hid in a cave. And it was there that That Which Is Bigger Than Us, bigger than him was encounter. There in that cave, with the fugitive, was the Source of All manifest as an almost silent voice. Ofcourse, that was how this person encountered on that occasion, but isn’t the Source of All present in all things.

The Source: Manifest to us in somethings; present in all things. And that ancient story concludes, neatly, with an encounter of hope, but of one that defied that man’s expectations. Perception is important.

And so I sit in the dark of the night and wait. And it seems that nothing happens.

We travellers, walking to the sun,
can’t see ahead, but looking back the very light
that blinded us shows us the way we came.
Along which blessings now appear, risen
as if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
by blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
that blessed light that yet to us is dark.

(Wendell Berry)

And as I sit here on this felled log, I think long and hard: We come with our preconceived ideas of what an encounter with the Source of All should be like. And yet, isn’t there part of us that knows the Source of All is beyond our reasoning, and all we can do is but catch a glimpse. Not a thundrous word from the Source of All, but a still small voice that suffices. And it happens at times. We know, deep down inside of us, that we cannot force an encounter, but can only put ourselves in the ‘flow’, and know that the Source of All is the one who initiates it. And the Source does initiate. Our intentionality, though, is all important here.

And, how would we recognise an encounter? In one sense that seems to be the most important of questions, and yet it isn’t. If That Which If Is Bigger Than Us determines an encounter is good for us, then the Source of All will ensure that it is comprehensible to us. Not too much to overwhelm us. Not too little so that we will miss it. But enough, to satisfy. And so I wait.

‘…in the light of the ordinary day, we come
to the space between ourselves,
the narrow doorway, and pass through
into the land of the wholly loved’.

(Wendell Berry)

And, after what seems to be an hour, I look at my wristwatch and almost three hours has passed by. [And indication of an encounter, even if not felt or remembered.] In doing so I am ‘pulled’ back into mechanical time – time measured in hours and minutes at the spin of a wheel or the oscilation of a crystal – and I leave sacred time-space, that otherworly experiece that is fleeting and seeemingly fragile.

And I walk back home. Slowly, with the flashlight dancing on the trees and shrubbery, I pick my way back to the path, and the thought comes to me. I’ve encountered. And so have you. When lovers meet there is a time when words mean nothing, when words just get in the way, and their presence, being in each others company, is everything.

Tonight, and perhaps (now) as you read this, we can understand and know that we can encounter wherever we are, if we go beyond rationality as we understand it. This is not to say we should be irrational, but perhaps arational. The latter being outside and above rarionality. How else can we encounter the Divine? Anything else limits us.

So here’s my question to you: Bearing in mind our set or usual patterns of prayers or rituals, or habits, are we too rigid, too limiting in our expectations? How open are we to encounter That Which Is Bigger Than Us (or the Source, or which ever ‘name’ you’re confortable with), not on our terrms, but on the Source’s terms?

‘It’s we who breathe, in, out, in, the sacred’.
(Denise Levertov)

 

Developing ‘Soft Eyes’: Apophatic ‘Day-Dreaming’

20170818 DEVELOPING SOFT EYES APOPHATIC DAYDREAMINGYesterday we looked at kataphatic ‘day-dreaming’ as one way of thinking in a visual and imaginative way, that is vital if we are to rekindle that childhood and deep perception of the world around us.

Then, with the ‘soft eyes’ of exploring mystery, rather than only with the use the analytical eyes of modernity we can regain that way of ‘seeing’ the ‘magic’ that exists and appreciate all that is around us. We can look at things more deeply, rather than at surface level.

In that previous article I mentioned an Anishinabe (First Nations) man from Canada wrote:

‘When most humans go into the forest they enter with so much of the world on them that any possibility of feeling the sacred is removed. When we go into the forest we must become soft like the animal people and the tree people’.

Today, I’d like to introduce apophatic ‘day-dreaming’. If kataphatic (see here) ‘day-dreaming’ is the using of mental ‘pictures’ and the imagination to grow, mature and be transformed, then apophatic ‘day-dreaming’ could be viewed as being the opposite.

As I extinguish the candle on the garden table, and losing the small but significant light, I’m plunged into darkness. I can’t see anything for a while, and it’s a wonderful feeling. And then as my eyes get used to the dark, I begin to make out shapes, and realise that I can see a few things, after all. This is very much like apophatic day-dreaming.

Now some may call it apophatic meditation, but for this article I’d like to call it apophatic day-dreaming because we all ‘day-dream’. Some are fearful of exercises which seek to empty the mind of thoughts, but I’d like to suggest that what apophatic day-dreaming really does is encourage us to disregard those annoying and extraneous thoughts that ‘flutter’ into our minds all the time. It’s a ‘down-playing’ of thoughts that get in the way. And, many churches and faith-groups are finding apophatic ‘day-dreaming’ useful, though they may call it centering prayer.

‘Another way to think about Centering Prayer is training the mind to become free from distractions so it can “rest in God.’ Amos Smith

It’s rather like, when I’m at the north Wales coast, and sit on the beach, and gaze at the horizon where the sea seems to meet the sky. I’m sure you’ve done similar. You can gaze away for what seems like a few minutes and yet half an hour or more has gone by. Call it lost in thought, focussed attention, or being ‘mesmerised’, but I’d like to suggest this is apophatic day-dreaming.

And, as you gaze at the horizon, maybe a dog  runs across the beach between you and the water’s edge. You may be mildly aware of the dog but you pay no attention to it. That’s apophatic day-dreaming. However, it you ‘focus’ on the dog, metaphorically, and think about it, then you’ve lost that wonderful ‘horizon-gaze’, and the moment has gone and ‘you’re back’, and you’re out of apophatic ‘day-dreaming’.

Now apophatic day-dreaming has a vast number of uses, and there are many exercises to assist us develop skills to assist us.

For instance, if you wanted to dwell on the Source of All, Nature or God, then what do you think of? I’d suggest that not concentrating on what the Source, Nature or God looks like – to take the apophatic approach – is one good way forward. After all, whatever image we have in our minds about the Source, Nature or God is going to be wrong. By definition, how can the finite mind imagine the infinite? And so, not dwelling on imaginative and extraneous thought can draw us closer. And, before you know it, that Time of Quiet, which you thought lasted only a few minutes, had infact lasted half an hour – a sure sign that you achieved apophatic day-dreaming.

This is in contrast to yesterday’s way of ‘day-dreaming’ and isn’t contrary to it – it’s another useful ‘tool’ for us to use.

With our eyes closed, and distractions abated, apophatic ‘day-dreaming’ brings us ‘closer’ to Source of All, Nature or God. Ofcourse, locationally we’re no closer or further away, but in our awareness we have drawn ‘closer’. This type of day-dreaming isn’t about doing, it’s about ‘being’. It isn’t about visualising anything, but not dwelling on thought(s). It’s not about recieving a ‘picture’, message or guidance, but revelling in that inner silence and stillness, in that inner place that some call le point vierge (the virgin point).

‘It’s very, very simple. You sit, either in a chair or on a prayer stool or mat, and allow your heart to open toward that invisible but always present Origin of all that exists.’ Cynthia Bourgeault

It’s being in a ‘place’ where effort isn’t needed. There is a point in any new human relationship where there is an sharing of views, a time of vocalisation to get to know someone – laughing, joking, teasing etc – and then there comes a point when you know each other sufficiently so that words aren’t need. Your’e madly in love and words just seem cumbersome. They’re now not needed in the courtship, and you’re comfortable with silence and each others company.

Apophatic ‘day-dreaming’ is very much like that. As you enter that area where the Source of All, Nature or God is, as the Beloved draws closer to you all you can do, all you need do is rest, relax, surrender, and bask in each others company. Words are not needed.

Time will fly, and what seemed to be a few minutes might be half an hour or more. Any analytical thinking (such as ‘Am I achieving apophatic day-dreaming, yet?’) will actually ‘pull you out’ of that wonderful liminal space-time. And so it’s usually afterwards as you leave sacred space-time that you realise, in hindsight, that you have had an encounter. Or, maybe you don’t feel that afterwards. Nevertheless, you are more than ‘feelings’ and the fact that you entered that liminal space with the intention of apophatic ‘day-dreaming’ means you have, indeed, encountered.

‘The mystery of seeking God is that God is the One who finds you.’ Kingsley Opuwari Manuel

This is one small aspect of apophatic ‘day-dreaming’, and something we’ll come back to from time to time, perhaps with the addition of local and online workshops soon.

Meanwhile, I would highly recommend that you put yourself in a position to make time for apophatic ‘day-dreaming’. A deep encounter with the Source of All, Nature, God or the Beloved in that place of inner stillness is beneficial. Through such encounters we can grow, mature, and are changed, transformed. Through such practises we can (re)develop ‘soft eyes’ to see beyond seeing and rekindle that childlike trust, innocence of the world around us, and original perception.

 

The Art Of [Experiencing] The Presence: Celtic Thought

20290616 THE ART OF PRESENCEThere’s an ancient story of a man wandering in the desert, and though he had done this for many years, on this specific occasion he noticed something strange, something out of the ordinary, something that caught his attention like it had never done before. He saw a bush in the distance that was on fire, and yet it wasn’t being destroyed by that fire. He drew closer to look.

From that ancient story it looked as though an angel was responsible for that burning bush, but when the man went to investigate it seems, from the one who then spoke, that the angel deferred to a higher power, the Presence. One wonders for how long that angel had been trying to catch his attention – days, weeks, years? Nevertheless, the man went to investigate.

This old, old story goes on to tell us that the burning bush spoke to the man by name, and told him to remove his shoes because the ground he was standing on was, indeed, holy ground. He did so. He drew aside, and in silence and in the desert, and experienced the Presence.

There is another story, more recent about a woman called Catherine Doherty. Arriving in Canada as a Russian refugee and living in the poorest parts of Toronto, she spent almost all of her life seeking to encounter the Presence, the Source of All, God, in the desert. She wrote in her book, ‘Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence…’, that deserts (and the Russian name for desert is Poustinia, hence the title of her book), those times of silence and solitude are ‘not necessarily places but states of mind and heart’.

These deserts can be found in busy cities, in sparsely populated area, as well as in places where we live each day of our lives.  These deserts of encounter, where the Presence can be experience, can be ‘tiny pools of silence’. They can be anywhere.

But how do we achieve this silence?

How do we experience the Presence? She says, ‘By standing still!’. Catherine Doherty

However we define the Presence, that Mystery, That Which Is Bigger Than Us, that which some call God (and that’s a word that is much overused hence my search and usage of other words), the Elements or Elementals, the Spirit, that Presence is much needed. Not to experience the Presence is not to experience Life in all its fullness.

If perception is looking at something and understanding it from some way off, then encountering the Presence is all about experience, communion, one-ness with and the acceptance of a relationship with the Presence, initiated by the Presence, and which is always beneficial.

And, yet we can ‘distance’ ourselves from the Presence, from that Great Flow, The Spirit, call ‘it’ what you will.

We can ‘distance’ or remove ourselves from the experience of the Presence by being too busy – we all live such busy lives, after all, and some seemingly quantify their worth by a ‘crowded’ diary; by being too precise  – we can so want our words of liturgy and ritual to be word-perfect that we focus on the words rather than the encounter; by being analytical – to use our minds to objectively observe what is going on with the Presence at the time of the encounter  immediately puts us at some distance and we step outside of the basking of sacred-time, and step back into ordinary time; by ‘crowding out’ the Presence by an excess of words, especially if we have limited time and a shopping-list of prayers to recite; by ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’.

Ofcourse, in one very real sense removing or distancing ourselves from the Presence is impossible – because the Presence is ubiquitous and is always close at hand – but we can remove ourselves from the knowledge and experience of the Presence by focussing on what really isn’t important at all.

Why do we do that?

We might fear the Presence and so don’t want to draw close, or we might not fully understand the loving and invitational presence of the Presence, we might be too busy (and if so, please find time to slow and stop occasionally), we might not realise the importance of ritual and prayer (that puts us in a position of being receptive), or (and this is true of some ‘old hands’, mature and ‘holy people’) some may not really want to draw close to the Presence because their lives may be changed (and even if for the better, it can be worrying for some to have Someone Else in the ‘driving seat’). And so, some may prefer an ‘arms length’ approach, to be in control of the ‘on-off’ button, and in such cases may actually be angry and upset with those that point to a closer communion.

Yes, it’s good to encourage greater communion in others, but if you do, be aware that there will some well-meaning people (even using Bible verses) to counter your good works and declare you to be a heretic. But, I can sense that you’re a principled, determined and passionate-for-the-truth sort of person, and that that wouldn’t stop you.

‘All I did was light candles.
Did God find me or did I find God?
Hush!
The time for words is past’.

(Barbara Brown Taylor)

So, how do we encounter the Presence?

Well, liturgy, prayer and ritual are some ways to put us in a position of being receptive to the always-there Presence, but they are ‘doorways’ to step through and enter that ‘inner sanctum’ of sacred-space. They are ‘tools’ to usher us into an awareness of the ‘Divine Ubiquitousness’.

There are many other ways to encounter the Presence (eg music, art, works of service, a numinous event, a tragic event, a loving event, a huge surprise etc) But the encounter of Presence always leads to silence, perhaps perceived in (inner) darkness (‘luminous darkness’), and without analytical thought. It is experience that takes place in time-out-of-time, without words, is a state or mind and being, and it is only after the experience, as we look back analytically, that we ‘remember’ being in the presence of the Presence. This is one of the purposes and uses of the Caim.

‘Your hand opens and closes,
opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralysed.
Your deepest presence
is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birds’ wings.’

(Rumi)

 

Celtic Thought: Seeing In The Dark

20170419 CELTIC THOUGHT SEEING IN THE DARKFor many, light equals safety. And for them, darkness infers insecurity and may lead to feelings of fear. It is the case that, sometimes, we talk about light in a positive way, darkness in a negative way, but it need not always be the case.

True, when we ‘shine a light’ on something, metaphorically, we can come to see it, picture it, and understand it, and perhaps even quantify it. This may be an advantage when speaking of physical things. What then of spiritual things, and when we need to use a different form of perception? If we’re talking about the deep things of the Source, then ‘seeing’ can be a handicap. Think of the Source, and whatever ‘picture’ or metaphor we use by way of a description  will be limiting and therefore inaccurate. The Source is beyond our imagining, and cannot be quantified.

So, a different form of perception is needed. We need: seeing in the dark. And that means, befriending the dark.

‘I said to my soul, be still, and let darkness come upon you
which shall be the darkness of God.’ T S Eliot

I admit, when I’m in north Wales, I love night walks in the forest. These can be deeply spiritual and rewarding. My eyes are rendered virtually useless as I navigate my way in near total darkness, and yet other ways of perceiving arise. I become more attuned to the sounds of animals, the ‘sighing’ of the trees as the wind blows through them, the sound of a nearby rivulet, the smells of trees and flowers, the feeling of the earth underfoot, and deep feelings of ‘presences’. I love it. I’m safe but lost (in wonder). Alone (but surrounded by nature). Wrong-footed visually (but something deep inside comes to the fore to guide me). Isn’t that encounter? Connectedness? We need a different way of seeing and that starts with befriending the dark.

Why?

Because the Source ‘inhabits’ the dark, too. And, in that darkness we are not distracted to see the Source as this thing or that. The Source, in the dark, is invisible, close, true and (almost) palpable. More so, in the dark.

[The Source]…’parted the heavens and came down, [and]
dark clouds were under his feet’ Psalm 18:9, The Book

With no visual distractions, with darkness all around, we rely on that which is deep within. In the dark there is no false illusion, no eyesight-vision at all, no distractions, no opportunity to quantify. Deep calls to deep. An encounter with the Source, as a result of deep meditation, cannot be described in terms of length and breadth, cannot be quantified, but merely spoken of in near-miss metaphors at best,  with the use of clumsy words. But, with our eyes closed in meditation or prayer, we enter the dark[ness]. And encounter in a deep, dynamic, earth-transcending, indescribable, real way.

‘You will…be led upwards to the Ray of the divine Darkness which exceeds all existence.’ Dionysius, Mystical Theology.

It sounds paradoxical: the way to the Source is not to use your eyes; if you want to ‘see’, then look into the dark; the Source is such a great Light that the Source uses darkness to make us comfortable; darkness releases us from the handicap of visual-quantification; in the dark we ‘see’ more.

‘There is in God (some say) a deep, but dazzling darkness.’ Henry Vaughn, The Night.

Do not fear. Make friends with the dark.