The Minimum Working Hypothesis

keep-calm-and-test-the-hypothesis keepcalm-o-matic co uk“Research into sense-experience – motivated and guided by a working hypothesis; leading, through logical inference to the formulation of an explanatory theory; and resulting in appropriate technological action.  That is natural science.  No working hypothesis means no motive for research, no reason for making one experiment rather than another, no way of bringing sense or order into the observed facts.  Contrawise, too much working hypothesis means finding only what you already know to be there and ignoring the rest.  Dogma turns a man into an intellectual Procrustes.  He goes about forcing things to become the signs of his word-patterns, when he ought to be adapting his word-patterns to become the signs of things.

Among other things religion is also research.  Research into, leading to theories about and action in the light of, nonsensuous, nonphysic, purely spiritual experience.

To motivate and guide this research what sort and how much of a working hypothesis do we need?

None, say the sentimental humanists; just a little bit of Wordsworth, say the nature-worshipers.  Result: they have no motive impelling them to make the more arduous experiments; they are unable to explain such nonsensuous facts as come their way; they make very little progress in charity.

At the other end of the scale are the Catholics, the Jews, the Moslems, all with historical, 100 percent revealed religions.  These people have their working hypotheses about nonsensuous reality; which means that they have a motive for doing something about it.  But because their working hypotheses are too elaborately dogmatic, most of them discover only what they were initially taught to believe.  But what they believe is a hotch-potch of good, less good and even bad.  Records of the infallible intuitions of great saints into the highest spiritual reality are mixed up with records of the less reliable and infinitely less valuable intuitions of psychics into the lower levels of nonsensuous reality; and to these are added mere fancies, discursive reasonings and sentimentalisms, projected into a kind of secondary objectivity and worshiped as divine facts.  But at all times and in spite of these handicaps a persistent few have continued to research to the point where at last they find themselves looking through their dogmas, out into the Clear Light of the Void beyond.

For those of us who are not congenitally the members of an organized church, who have found that humanism and nature-worship are not enough, who are not content to remain in the darkness of ignorance, the squalor of vice, or the other squalor of respectability, the minimum working hypothesis would seem to run about this:

That there is a Godhead, Ground, Brahman, Clear Light of the Void, which is the unmanifested principle of all manifestations.

That the Ground is at once transcendent and immanent.

That it is possible for human beings to love, know and, from virtually, to become actually identical with the Divine Ground.

That to achieve this unitive knowledge of the Godhead is the final end and purpose of human existence.

That there is a Law or Dharma which must be obeyed, a Tao or Way which must be followed, if men are to achieve their final end.

That the more there is of self, the less there is of the Godhead; and that the Tao is therefore a way of humility and love, the Dharma a living Law of mortification and self-transcending awareness. 

This, of course, accounts for the facts of history.  People like their egos and do not wish to mortify them, get a bigger kick out of bullying and self-adulation than out of humility and compassion, are determined not to see why they shouldn’t “do what they like” and “have a good time.”  They get their good time; but also and inevitably they get wars and syphilis, tyranny and alcoholism, revolution, and in default of an adequate religious hypothesis the choice between some lunatic idolatry, such as nationalism, and a sense of complete futility and despair.  Unutterable miseries!  But throughout recorded history the great majority of men and women have preferred the risk – no, the positive certainty – of such disasters to the tiresome whole-time job of seeking first the kingdom of God.  In the long run, we get exactly what we ask for.”

– Aldous Huxley, The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment

Be Melting Snow

Totally conscious, and apropos of nothing, you come to see me.
Is someone here? I ask.
The moon. The full moon is inside your house.

My friends and I go running out into the street.
I’m in here, comes a voice from the house, but we aren’t listening.
We’re looking up at the sky.
My pet nightingale sobs like a drunk in the garden.
Ringdoves scatter with small cries, Where, Where.
It’s midnight. The whole neighborhood is up and out
in the street thinking, The cat burglar has come back.
The actual thief is there too, saying out loud,
Yes, the cat burglar is somewhere in this crowd.
No one pays attention.

Lo, I am with you always means when you look for God,
God is in the look of your eyes,
in the thought of looking, nearer to you than your self,
or things that have happened to you
There’s no need to go outside.

Be melting snow.
Wash yourself of yourself.

A white flower grows in quietness.
Let your tongue become that flower.

-Rumi

Her

 

I’m a little behind the ball on this one, but I just saw Her at the dollar theater this weekend.

Wow.

I never thought I would enjoy a movie which is almost exclusively about emotional intimacy, but somehow this did it.  Basically all you do is follow the ups and downs in the relationship between Joaquin and his Artificially Intelligent Operating System (Scarlett Johannsen).  But that’s all you need.  Joaquin is brilliant, Scarlett is somehow gorgeous even without a physical existence, and the questions the film raises about the nature of relationships and intimacy induce self-examination and mind implosion.

I talked to my roommate about it and he said he fell asleep halfway through.

Different strokes for different folks I guess!  I loved it and recommend it highly bub!

John Hick on the Metaphor of God Incarnate

“The traditional Christian understanding of Jesus of Nazareth is that he was God incarnate, who became a man to die for the sins of the world and who founded the church to proclaim this.  If he was indeed God incarnate, Christianity is the only religion founded by God in person, and must as such be uniquely superior to all other religions.

In this book I criticize this set of ideas and point to an alternative.  I argue (1) that Jesus himself did not teach what was to become the orthodox Christian understanding of him; (2) that the dogma of Jesus’ two natures, one human and the other divine, has proved to be incapable of being explicated in any satisfactory way; (3) that historically the traditional dogma has been used to justify great human evils; (4) that the idea of divine incarnation is better understood as metaphorical than as literal – Jesus embodied, or incarnated, the ideal human life lived in faithful response to God, so that God was able to act through him, and he accordingly embodied a love which is a human reflection of divine love; (5) that we can rightly take Jesus, so understood, as our Lord, the one who has made God real to us and whose life and teachings challenge us to live in God’s presence; and (6) that a non-traditional Christianity based on this understanding of Jesus can see itself as one among a number of different human responses to the ultimate transcendent Reality that we call God, and can better serve the development of world community and world peace than a Christianity which continues to see itself as the locus of final revelation and purveyor of the only salvation possible for all human beings.”

The Metaphor of God Incarnate, Second Edition: Christology in a Pluralistic Age

A Series of Quotes from The Cloud of Unknowing: Moderation

no moderation“Now if you ask me what sort of moderation you should observe in the contemplative work, I will tell you: none at all.

In everything else, such as eating, drinking, and sleeping, moderation is the rule.  Avoid extremes of heat and cold; guard against too much and too little in reading, prayer, or social involvement.  In all these things, I say again, keep to the middle path.  But in love (contemplation) take no measure.  Indeed, I wish that you had never to cease from this work of love.

Perhaps by now you are wondering how to determine the proper mean in eating, drinking, sleeping, and the rest.  I will answer you briefly: be content with what comes along.  If you give yourself generously to the work of love, I feel sure you will know when to begin and end every other activity.  If only I might always be preoccupied and faithful to the work of love in my heart!  I doubt then that I would care much about my eating, drinking, sleeping, and speaking.  For certainly it is better to achieve moderation in these things through heedlessness than through anxious introspection, as if this would help determine the appropriate measure.  Surely nothing I do or say can really bring this about.  Let others say what they will; experience is my witness.”

- The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 41, 42

Psalm 62

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress;
I shall not be greatly shaken.

How long will all of you attack a man to batter him,
like a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
They only plan to thrust him down from his high position.
They take pleasure in falsehood.
They bless with their mouths,
but inwardly they curse.

Selah.

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.

Selah.

Those of low estate are but a breath;
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.

Put no trust in extortion;
set no vain hopes on robbery;if riches increase, set not your heart on them.

Once God has spoken;
twice I have heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.
For you will render to a man according to his work.

So Many Skins

meister

“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves. Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”

- Meister Eckhart

A Poem by St. John of the Cross

His experience of the soul’s seeking, and finding, its Beloved God…

One dark night, fired with love’s urgent longings
-ah, the sheer grace!-
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
-ah, the sheer grace!-
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
-him I knew so well-
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

- St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul

Intimacy with God: Review

Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering PrayerSynopsis:  “We are summoned into the presence of God by the fact of our birth, but we become present to God only by our consent.  As our faculties and capacities to relate gradually develop and unfold, the capacity to enter into relationship with God increases, and each new depth of presence requires a new consent.”  Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer, by Thomas Keating, is a book about consent.  Consent to let God be God in our lives.  But the consent that Keating refers to is not a one time, 10 second prayer, in which we superficially (or even sincerely) ask God to work in us; it is a sustained commitment to give God what He needs to transform us, our time and attention.  By practicing what Keating calls Centering Prayer, we can learn to be truly present to God and find the Intimacy through which (and only through which) we will be changed.

Overview: Throughout the book, Keating addresses all things Centering Prayer, including its origins, its theological basis, the psychology it produces, the wider Christian contemplative tradition, and his vision for how it (and through “it,” God) can be an agent of change in our times.  I’ll look at several chapters in which Keating describes origins, the method itself, and a model for how to understand the experience psychologically.

The Origins of Centering Prayer:  Although Christianity has a wide contemplative tradition stemming from the New Testament and running through the Greek and Desert Fathers (Evagrius, John Cassian, St. John Climacus, the Philokalia, etc.), the Patristic age (Augustine, Gregory the Great, Pseudo Dionysius), the Middle Ages (Eckhart, Ruysbroek, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle),  and post-Reformation (Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, Thomas Merton), Keating traces the origins of Centering Prayer to an anonymously written 14th Century mystical text called The Cloud of Unknowing.  The author of this work taught a method of prayer that was designed to foster the inner quiet which would lead to “the contemplative attitudes of listening and receptivity” and, ultimately, to what mystics might call “union with God.”  It was a simple method of prayer, and variants of it can be seen in the writings of mystics from a host of time periods and religious traditions.  According to Keating, the term “Centering Prayer” comes from the works of Thomas Merton, and began being widely used in Catholic monastic communities in the mid-1970s.  This term is synonymous with the method of prayer taught in The Cloud of Unknowing.  So….Centering Prayer = Cloud of Unkowing in a new package.

The Method:  Ok, so The Cloud of Unknowing, the Christian Contemplative tradition, blah blah blah, yada yada yada. What is Centering Prayer!?  Here’s how Keating describes the method…

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

3. When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

So basically it’s just sitting there :)  To be honest I don’t know why #4 is included on the list, but whatev.  Essentially what you are doing is using a word (often “God” or “love”) to symbolize your intention to focus on God and stop your mind from wandering off into a million different directions.  The goal is to remain present to God and cultivate the interior silence that makes that possible.  As Keating describes…

The focusing process that the sacred word serves is not to bring a particular face, object, or symbol into focus in the imagination, but to focus our intention when it gets fuzzy.  Intention is the most important factor in any contemplative prayer practice, but especially in Centering Prayer, in which our only activity consists in maintaining our intention to consent to God’s presence and action during the time of prayer.  The intention becomes fuzzy when we are pulled back to our ordinary level of awareness by attraction or aversion to some thought, feeling, or impression….(and you use the word to bring you back).

To sum up, we use the sacred word only as a focusing apparatus to bring our intention into full clarity, whenever, because of the weakness of human nature and the fact that the emotional programs for happiness in the unconscious are still active, we need some means of returning to our original intention – that is, consent to God’s presence and action within us.  With regular practice, we develop a certain ease in promptly letting go.  We then enter into the cloud of unknowing, which develops through repeated acts of small consent.

The “sacred word” is used to battle the millions of thoughts and distractions that will inevitably arise in our heads when we try to sit still.  Without a method of focus, Centering Prayer time just becomes “sitting and thinking about things.”  By training ourselves to focus our intention, we can move past those distractions into the experience of God.

It’s important to note that Centering Prayer one form of prayer.  It is receptive.  In it, we are not bringing requests to God or setting the agenda, we are simply remaining open to receive what we need to receive.

The Effect and Pyschology of Centering Prayer:  Keating describes the effects of Centering Prayer in a variety of ways: “Divine Psychotherapy,” becoming “Healed”, “Living from our center,” and “Divinization” (the process of becoming more like God).  What it seems to boil down to is basically being open to the activity of God and “letting Him do what He wants to do.”  In the experience of those who practice this form of prayer, God as Therapist, healing, being empowered to live from your “center,” and becoming more like God all seem like accurate descriptions of the effects.  In the following passage, Keating explores the process in terms of therapy:

Here is another model that might be appropriate for our time, at least for the Western word, which has been so influenced by contemporary psychology.  I call this paradigm for spiritual growth the “Divine Therapy.”  Therapy suggests a climate of friendship and trust that a topnotch therapist is able to inspire, while at the same time emphasizing that we come to therapy with a variety of serious emotional or mental problems.  The human race, as a whole, is a sick species…most people are not aware of their illness or how very sick they are.  They do not have an adequate diagnosis of the human condition in general or their own weakness in particular.  Hence they do not reach out for the kind of assistance that they need in order to recover.

One of the great strengths of the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous is that it emphasizes how serious one’s illness actually is.  Participants in AA know that their lives are unmanageable and will never become manageable unless they work the twelve steps.  In actual fact, most humans suffer from the serious illness that Ann Wilson Schaef calls “The Addictive Process” – indeed, as high as 98 percent of the population in the Western world, according to some recent statistics.  Personally, I have never met anyone from the other 2 percent!  The addictive process as a psychological term parallels what theology in the Christian tradition calls “the consequences of original sin,” only in much greater detail.  The addictive process manifests itself according to the circumstances and personality in one or another of the many addictions that can now be treated by various Twelve Step programs.  The advantage of being an addict is that you know that you will never get well without help.  Unfortunately, the average practicing Christian, because of a certain modicum of respectability, does not seem to know this.  It is not until the addiction gradually gets so bad and all semblance of functionality breaks down that one finally recognizes it.  The practical question for all of us is “How addicted are we?”

The consequences of original sin according to traditional theology are three: illusion, concupiscence, and weakness of will.  Illusion means that although we are irresistibly programmed for boundless happiness in a way that is inherent to human nature, we do not know where true happiness is to be found.  Concupiscence means that we seek happiness in the wrong places or too much happiness in the right places.  And finally, if we ever reach the point of finding out where true happiness is to be found, our will is too weak to pursue it.  What is different about this teaching from the proclamation of the first step of the Twelve Step program of AA that “my life is unmanageable?”  If one accepts the traditional doctrine of the consequences of original sin, the freedom to manage one’s life is severely limited.  It is on the basis of complete helplessness apart from the grace of God that the whole idea of redemption rests.

Once we reach the bottom line of the diagnosis, we do not have to wait until things fall completely apart to recognize the seriousness of our illness.  We can start at once by taking preventive therapy designed to heal the roots of developing addictive processes before they become full blown.  The gospel addresses the human condition just as it is.  “Repent” – that fundamental call in the gospel to begin the healing process – means “change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.”  The various orientations for happiness that we brought with us from early childhood are not working.  They are slowly killing us.  If we respond to the invitation to repent addressed to us so lovingly by the divine physician, we can begin at once to take advantage of the Divine Therapy.

Keating goes on to discuss the development of the “false self” and the process by which God acts as the Divine Therapist when we allow Him to.

Regardless of how one conceptualizes the effects of Centering Prayer, the themes of inner healing, peace, and a changed character will likely emerge.  Whether these effects are real or imagined is an open question :)

Personal Takeaways:  The Cloud of Unknowing is my favorite “mystical text.”  I was introduced to it several years ago and the method of prayer described in it and Keating’s work have been extremely helpful in my own spiritual journey.  The method takes practice and commitment before it becomes anything more than just sitting and “thinking your thoughts.”  But over time, I do feel like this way of clearing my mind and focusing my intention has helped me “experience God” and allowed Him to take action in my life.  I have, in small steps, been learning to take the advice of The Cloud:

To put it more simply, let that mysterious grace move in your spirit as it will and follow wherever it leads you.  Let it be the active doer and you the passive receiver.  Do not meddle with it, but let it be for fear you spoil it entirely.  Your part is to be as wood to a carpenter or a home to a dweller.  Remain blind during this time cutting away all desire to know, for knowledge is a hindrance here.  Be content to feel this mysterious grace sweetly awaken in the depths of your spirit.

Final Thoughts:  A repackaging of old ideas.  Keating along with authors like Basil Pennington and Cynthia Bourgeault offer a great introduction to Centering Prayer.  Read it next to The Cloud.  The hard part is not just understanding the method, it’s having the discipline to put it into practice.  I’m semi-convinced that Centering Prayer is the solution to all of life’s problems.

To put it more simply, let that mysterious grace move in your spirit as it will and follow wherever it leads you.  Let it be the active doer and you the passive receiver.  Do not meddle with it, but let it be for fear you spoil it entirely.  Your part is to be as wood to a carpenter or a home to a dweller.  Remain blind during this time cutting away all desire to know, for knowledge is a hindrance here.  Be content to feel this mysterious grace sweetly awaken in the depths of your spirit.  Forget everything but God and fix on him your naked desire, your longing stripped of all self interest… – See more at: http://www.walkingtowardsthelight.org/quote-cloud-unknowing-passive-reciever/#sthash.ZYRtPVoB.dpuf

Also…a video from Keating which speaks of such things:

To put it more simply, let that mysterious grace move in your spirit as it will and follow wherever it leads you.  Let it be the active doer and you the passive receiver.  Do not meddle with it, but let it be for fear you spoil it entirely.  Your part is to be as wood to a carpenter or a home to a dweller.  Remain blind during this time cutting away all desire to know, for knowledge is a hindrance here.  Be content to feel this mysterious grace sweetly awaken in the depths of your spirit.  Forget everything but God and fix on him your naked desire, your longing stripped of all self interest… – See more at: http://www.walkingtowardsthelight.org/quote-cloud-unknowing-passive-reciever/#sthash.ZYRtPVoB.dpuf
To put it more simply, let that mysterious grace move in your spirit as it will and follow wherever it leads you.  Let it be the active doer and you the passive receiver.  Do not meddle with it, but let it be for fear you spoil it entirely.  Your part is to be as wood to a carpenter or a home to a dweller.  Remain blind during this time cutting away all desire to know, for knowledge is a hindrance here.  Be content to feel this mysterious grace sweetly awaken in the depths of your spirit.  Forget everything but God and fix on him your naked desire, your longing stripped of all self interest… – See more at: http://www.walkingtowardsthelight.org/quote-cloud-unknowing-passive-reciever/#sthash.ZYRtPVoB.dpuf

Virtues and Vices

virtueThe All-Inclusive Vice is Self-Centeredness and the All-Inclusive Virtue is Other-Centeredness.

All the other ones are wrapped up in those Big Two.

And the virtuous life is the good life.

Freedom from Self

ego“Conversion, the movement toward the Lord, is a process of disenchantment with the ego, recognizing how truly afraid and poor it is.  The only way people can ever be freed from their fears is to be freed from themselves.  There is almost a complete correlation between the amount of fear in our lives and the amount of attachment we have to ourselves.  The person who is beyond fear has given up the need to control or possess.  That one says, I am who I am in God’s eyes – nothing more, nothing less.  I don’t need to impress you because I am who I am, and not who you think I am – or who I think I am.

That one doesn’t need the false self.  You have faced the enemy once and for all and, guess what?  It’s you!”

- Richard Rohr, Radical Grace:Daily Meditations

Reluctant Saint

Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi (Compass)“Francis was no theoretician of the spiritual life.  He never spoke of God in any but experiential terms, because he was a witness to a living and acting God.  He could speak only of what he saw, heard and felt.  In this regard, he remains before us, across the centuries, as an example of what God can do – which is primarily to astonish, to alter radically the way we live and move.  In the dramatic passages of his own life, and the remarkable ways in which a genial but rather shallow young playboy became a model of service to the world, he revealed that God is present in time and history.  In other words, he has such credibility because he demonstrated that we are at our best when we dare to allow God into our lives.

The extremes of Francis’s life, during which he passed from playboy to penitent to poor man to saint, reveal an individual who stood at the margin of the world.  In his identification with those whom polite society rejects, Francis called into question the folly of relying on money, goods and material things for happiness.  He is a figure who appeals to just about everyone, probably because (unlike most saints) he is not Roman Catholic property.  The first great modern biography was written by a French Protestant; one of the most important historians of Franciscanism was an Anglican bishop; a powerful novel of his life was written by a Greek Orthodox; and when the Dalai Lama was photographed at a peace conference in Assisi, he chose to be seated at the place Francis most loved, where he died.

Much in this man’s life remains hidden and ambiguous, but one thing is clear beyond argument: for the second half of his life, he was haunted by the presence of God, even as he was suffering most from the ravages of serious disease, blindness and the dissolution of his most cherished hopes.  In a way, his life sometimes seems (but only seems) a long struggle with futility; this, I think, is the key to understanding him.”

- Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint

Great, realistic, and sober biography of Francis of Assisi.  A great man.

Crimes and Misdemeanors

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This movie is a hot mess of the interplay between moral philosophy and the existence/non-existence of God…and I mean that in the best way possible.  Just watched Woody’s newest, Blue Jasmine.  All I can say is “Wha happened?”  His old stuff is still good though…

Karl Barth on the Word of God

karl barth“This is what we mean when we call the Bible God’s Word…The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be His Word, to the extent He speaks through it…The Bible, then, becomes God’s Word in this event, and in the statement that the Bible is God’s Word, the little word “is” refers to its being in this becoming.”

– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

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For Barth, the Bible is not God’s Word in itself.  The words of Scripture become God’s Word when the Holy Spirit addresses us through the text.  On this view, the Word of God is not a text, but an event.

An option for a theology of Scripture…

A Thought on our Motivations

motivationMost of us are motivated primarily by:

    1. The felt evolutionary-biological need to reproduce.
    2. Our own vanity.

I’m not sure which is a function of the other.

The saints, losing their individual wills, are motivated by the love of God and neighbor.  Every once in a while we get the chance to experience what the saints do.  And it’s nice.

A Series of Quotes from the Cloud of Unknowing: Be a Passive Receiver

10993325-wood-workshop-carpenter-working-with-chiselIt’s God’s work, not yours:

Beware of pride; it is blasphemy against God in his gifts and it makes the sinner bold.  If you were really humble you would understand what I am trying to say.  Contemplative prayer is God’s gift, wholly gratuitous.  No one can earn it.  It is in the nature of this gift that one who receives it receives also the aptitude for it.  No one can have the aptitude without the gift itself.  The aptitude for this work is one with the work; they are identical.  He who experiences God working in the depths of his spirit has the aptitude for contemplation and no one else.  For without God’s grace a person would be so completely insensitive to the reality of contemplative prayer that he would be unable to desire or long for it.  You possess it to the extent that you will and desire to possess it, no more no less.  But you will never desire to possess it until that which is ineffable and unknowable moves you to desire the ineffable and unknowable.  Do not be curious to know more, I beg you.  Only become increasingly faithful to this work until it becomes your whole life. 

To put it more simply, let that mysterious grace move in your spirit as it will and follow wherever it leads you.  Let it be the active doer and you the passive receiver.  Do not meddle with it, but let it be for fear you spoil it entirely.  Your part is to be as wood to a carpenter or a home to a dweller.  Remain blind during this time cutting away all desire to know, for knowledge is a hindrance here.  Be content to feel this mysterious grace sweetly awaken in the depths of your spirit.  Forget everything but God and fix on him your naked desire, your longing stripped of all self interest…

-The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 34

Three Questions

three-questionsIt once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.

In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that, one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.

All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to none. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.

The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted, and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his body-guard behind, went on alone.

When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.

The King went up to him and said: “I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?”

The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.

“You are tired,” said the King, “let me take the spade and work awhile for you.”

“Thanks!” said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the King, he sat down on the ground.

When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said:

“Now rest awhile-and let me work a bit.”

But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said:

“I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.”

“Here comes some one running,” said the hermit, “let us see who it is.”

The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound. When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep—so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.

“Forgive me!” said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.

“I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,” said the King.

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”

The King was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.

The King approached him, and said:

“For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.”

“You have already been answered!” said the hermit, still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.

“How answered? What do you mean?” asked the King.

“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important—Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

-Leo Tolstoy, “Three Questions” – Twenty Three Tales

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The most important time is now.

The most important person is the one you are with.

The most important thing to concern yourself with is to do them good.