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Center for Action and Contemplation

Dying by Brightness

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Unknowing: Week 2

Dying by Brightness
Sunday, October 7, 2018

I die by brightness and the Holy Spirit. —Thomas Merton (1915-1968) [1]

For most of us, growth is a long process of being drawn “by brightness and the Holy Spirit,” as Merton says. I interpret this brightness as being overwhelmed and undone by Immense Mystery and Goodness. Yet the Holy Spirit leads and must direct this undoing. We cannot take control, and this is our “dying” as we have to gradually let go of our need for control, our small self-serving worldviews, and our comforting certitudes about which we are really not certain at all. It is a dying that we must both allow from our side and also allow to be done to us—in other words, both an active and a receptive surrender.

For example, Jesus said, “When you pray, do not babble on like the pagans do” (Matthew 6:7). Contemplation instead waits for the moments, accepts the moments, and trusts the moments that come like a “creation out of nothing” instead of filling the silence with our own words and ideas. Contemplation is essentially a nondual consciousness that overcomes the gap between being and doing. It allows us to live trustfully in our naked being-in-God, without dressing it up with performance of any kind.

The reason why the true contemplative-in-action is still somewhat rare is that most of us, even and often in religion, are largely educated in dualistic thinking (quick, certain, and smug judgments). Judgmentalism and dismissiveness does not overcome distinctions but actually magnifies them. When we try to use this limited tool of differentiation and critique in prayer and relationships, we quickly see its limitations. The fatal mistake of ego “consciousness” is that it excludes and eliminates the unconscious (where both deep goodness and deep badness lie hidden)—which ironically means our common consciousness is actually not conscious at all! But the human ego prefers knowing and being certain over being honest. “Don’t bother me with the truth, I want to be in control,” it invariably says. Most people who think they are fully conscious or “smart” and in control, have a big iron manhole cover over their unconscious. It does give them a sense of being right and in charge, but it seldom yields compassion, community, or wisdom.

We are led forward by brightness, a larger force field, that is willing to include the negative, the problematic, the difficult, the unknown—all of which I do not fully understand. “Take the log out of your own eye first and then you will see clearly,” Jesus says (Luke 6:42). By the log, I think he is referring to the big thing we do not want to see, which many of us call “the shadow self.” God’s brightness does not exclude or deny anything. Divine perfection is precisely the ability to include imperfection; whereas we think we must exclude, deny, and even punish it! The flow of grace is an increasing ability to forgive reality for being what it is—instead of what we want it to be!

The beauty of the unconscious, whether personal or collective, is that it knows a great deal, but it also knows that it does not know, cannot say, dare not try to prove or assert too strongly. What it does know is that there is always more—and all words will fall short and all concepts will be incomplete. The contemplative is precisely the person who agrees to live in that kind of blinding brightness. The paradox, of course, is that it does not feel like brightness at all, but what John of the Cross (1542-1591) called a “luminous darkness” and others identify as “learned ignorance.”

We cannot grow in the integrative dance of action and contemplation without a strong tolerance for ambiguity, an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and a willingness not to know—and not even to need to know. What else would give us peace and contentment?

[1] Thomas Merton, “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to a Window,” The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1980), 47.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 2-4.

Image credit: Stars and Clouds at Nighttime (detail), Arnie Chau.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing which now happily envelops you. You won’t know what this is . . . You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do.The Cloud of Unknowing
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