Dear Donagh,

…During prayer time I have all kinds of thoughts and feelings….  How can I know if these are from God, or only from myself…?  Bernie

Dear Bernie,

I hope you don’t mind that I quoted only those two lines from your letter.  But they are the heart of the matter.

Every question about God pulls us into the deep, so we have to take a deep breath and jump.  “God and I are not one and we are not two,” someone said (and many repeated).  How are we to attempt to understand this?  As best we can.  In order to figure in the same list, two things would have to be of the same order.  We would not say, for example, that a loaf of bread and a mathematical equation were “two.”  So God and I are not two.  Neither are we one (that would be pantheism or monism).  God and we are incommensurate, as we say: we cannot be compared, or totted up together, or put in the same box – nor even in different boxes (God doesn’t fit in any box).  We are not one and not two. 

I know that that sounds very theoretical.  So let’s look at it in a more practical way.  According to the head we are two; according to the heart we are one.  Is that the answer?  An answer can be too clear.  In the end I think we can answer it only with our life, not with words. 

Think of a simple life-situation that might throw light on it. When you do something awkwardly you know all too well that it is you who are doing it!  Your thumbs get in the way, you drop things, the job takes a long time.  But when you do something skilfully it is as if it happened by itself; it happened through you, you were just a finely-tuned instrument.  I have heard golfers say things like this, and potters and carpenters.  Such skilful actions are like moments of grace - natural grace.  They give us some impression of how supernatural grace works.  Something perfect happens through you and you don’t say “thanks be to me,” but “thanks be to God!”  In such moments you are free of the ego.  Jesus's whole life was like that: “It is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work” (Jn 14:10).  Also in John’s gospel, in words attributed to John the Baptist: “One can lay claim only to what is given from heaven” (Jn 3:27). 

This is very paradoxical; you could spend the rest of your life on it – or rather in it.  In other words it is matter for contemplation.   The Christian literature on this paradox is very rich and rewarding.  “God is ours,” said Johann Tauler (14th century), “God is all our own, more truly ours than anything else we own.”  Raymond Blakney (1941) translated a passage from Meister Eckhart as follows (with the exclusive language of the day): “If it is true that God became man, it is also true that man became God… and so… you haven't got to borrow from God, for he is your own and therefore whatever you get, you get from yourself.  Before God, work that does not come from your [inmost] self is dead…. If your work is to live, it must come from the depths of you – not from alien sources outside you – but from within.”

The difficulty is that a lot of our work and our thinking doesn’t come from “the depths of us,” but from alien sources.  Our world is only too willing to provide these distractions.  We are not always at our best.  Everyone gets sleepy and distracted at times, living from the surface.  Then we can say that our thoughts and feelings are coming from ourselves.  But when we immerse ourselves in a moment of prayer or meditation, truly forgetting ourselves and our struggles – even our struggles to pray and meditate – something from the deeper source moves in us. 

Even the will to pray is prayer; or perhaps we should say, the will to pray is the heart of prayer. I don’t think God is waiting for our beta waves to turn into alpha waves.  Many years ago I knew a laboratory technician who was interested in meditation, so he rigged himself up to a device that showed whether his brain waves at any moment were alpha waves or beta waves.  Alpha waves indicate deep quiet, and beta waves indicate thinking.  The trouble was that checking for alpha waves is a very beta wave activity.  What I learned from him was to ignore what goes on in my head during prayer or meditation.  It doesn’t matter.  Prayer and meditation are not about me.  We have to stop watching ourselves and try instead to forget ourselves.  It makes sense, but it is not so easy: ask any golfer!

I hope these few thoughts haven't made things worse for you, Bernie!


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