Beholding — Center for Action and Contemplation

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The Perennial Tradition

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

My friend and Christian philosopher James Danaher writes about unfiltered divine encounter as a core element in the Perennial Tradition.

There is a perennial philosophy that is not relative to history, culture, or language community. It is a philosophy, or perhaps better termed an alternative epistemology, that continually claims that pure, unfiltered perception is possible. [Remember, epistemology means how we know what we know; an “alternative epistemology” means that there’s another way of knowing what we know—what we’re calling Perennial Tradition—that is less rooted in culture, religion, tradition, or binary thinking.] This alternative epistemology perennially appears in every major religious tradition. In every historical epoch and in every cultural tradition, there are those who practice a form of contemplation that puts them in a position to receive the gift of an unfiltered divine encounter.

Unlike those who imagine that they can experience and know God the way they know other things, the contemplative knows that God is encountered in a way very different from any ordinary experience. . . . Our ordinary experience is always an interpretation based upon the conceptual understanding we bring to the data of the experience. When we encounter the divine, our conceptual understanding is not equipped to do anything but misinterpret that encounter. If we recognize this, we treat our encounters with the divine very differently than our normative experience, and wait upon the divine without all of the filters through which we normally process the data of our experience.

Consequently, the divine encounter is something of a pure or direct encounter because there are no appropriate words or concepts through which to interpret it. Maggie Ross refers to the encounter with the divine as “beholding.” [1] Beholding is the antithesis of ordinary experience in that the self, which usually processes the data of our experience through an understanding inherited from our history, culture, and language community, is suspended, and we change our focus in order to be open to an engagement that defies whatever understanding we bring to it. . . .

What makes the contemplative experience universal and perennial is that contemplatives suspend the understanding through which their minds actively process and assess the data of their experience. . . . The prejudice of the modern mind is that knowledge must be something we can possess, but the knowledge that comes from our encounters with the divine possesses us and infuses an ineffable knowing within us. . . .

The prayer of the contemplative is, essentially, an attention to the omnipresence of God. God is omnipresent not as a theological doctrine, but as the great silence that is present in every moment—but from which we are usually distracted by an overactive mind that refuses to wait in a humble unknowing for a pure wisdom from above [James 3:17]. [2]

If you have practiced any form of contemplation for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced the truth of this last statement. I surely have, and it’s what inspired me to stay on the contemplative path and to talk and write about it so passionately.

[1] Maggie Ross, “Behold Not the Cloud of Experience,” The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Exeter Symposium VIII, ed. E. A. Jones (Boydell and Brewer: 2013), 29-50.

[2] James P. Danaher, “What’s So Perennial About the Perennial Philosophy?”

“The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, vol. 1, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 50-51, 53. No longer in print; a Kindle version is available from Amazon.

Image credit: A Moment of Prayer (detail), Frederick Arthur Bridgeman, 1877, Private Collection.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: In every historical epoch and in every cultural tradition, there are those who practice a form of contemplation that puts them in a position to receive the gift of an unfiltered divine encounter. —James Danaher
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