The Oceans of God: John Main’s Last Letter

John Main

At Christmas time we become more sharply aware of the mysterious blend of the ordinary and the sublime in the monastic life and indeed all life that is really Christian. It is important, though, to see it as a blend, not as an opposition. It is tempting to treat the birth of Christ as something romantically outside the full meaning of his life, something pre-Christian. In the rich and beautiful gospel accounts of his birth, we can be tempted to see this part of his life as merely consoling or idyllic. But it is part of the human mystery that nothing is outside the Mystery. By the Incarnation, God accepted this aspect of the human condition and so the birth and childhood of Christ are part of the mystery of his life – a life that culminated on the cross and reached its transcendent completion in the Resurrection and Ascension. Our meditation teaches us how fully every part of us has to be involved in the radical conversion of our life. It teaches us that we have to put our whole heart into this work of the Spirit if we are genuinely to respond to the call to leave the shallows and enter into the deep, direct knowledge that marks a life lived in the mystery of God. Then everything in our life acquires this depth dimension of divine Presence. We are foolish to look for `signs’ on the way – it is a form of spiritual materialism that Jesus rebuked – because if we are on the way, which means in the Mystery, in the bright cloud of God’s presence, then all things are signs. Everything mediates the love of God.

 There is, of course, literary art in the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew. But this does not mean that the details of the birth of Christ were not charged with wonder and mystery for those who were involved in it. The parents of Jesus `wondered’ at what was being said about him. And Mary teaches us how this experience of wonder is to be assimilated by `treasuring these things in her heart’. The `heart’ is that focal point in our being where we can simply be in the Mystery without trying to explain or dissect it. A mystery analyzed becomes merely another problem. It must be apprehended whole and entire. And that is why we, who are called to apprehend it, must ourselves be made one in heart and mind. The mystery surrounding Jesus was perceptible from the beginning of his life. Not until his death and resurrection was it capable of being fully apprehended, fully known. Because not until then was it complete. Our life does not achieve full unity until it transcends itself and all limitations by passing through death. This is why we do not fully comprehend the mystery of Christ, in which we enter the mystery of God until our life is complete. We begin to enter it as soon as our consciousness begins to stir into vital perception and to learn the laws of reality by learning to love and be loved. But we are always learning, always preparing for the fullness that comes to us all.

Until the life of Jesus passed through death and returned in the Resurrection this completion was a source of terror or despair to the human race. Now it has been transformed. For what seemed a dead-end has now been revealed to the eyes of faith as a bridge. This is the hidden significance of the birth of Jesus, his growth through infancy and manhood and his supreme sacrifice of self on the Cross. In our beginning is our end. And so in the birth of Jesus death already began to be transformed. All the intuitions shared by those involved in his birth and his early life were fulfilled in his ministry and the paschal mystery. His life, like every human life, has a hidden and mysterious unity. End and beginning are two ends of the string of life held in the mystery of God and joined together in the mystery of Christ.

Our life is a unity because it is centred in the mystery of God. But to know its unity we have to see beyond ourselves and with a perspective greater than we generally see with, when self-interest is our dominant concern. Only when we have begun to turn from self-interest and self-consciousness does this larger perspective begin to open.

Another way of saying that our vision expands is to say that we come to see beyond mere appearances, into the depth and significance of things. Not just the depth and significance in relation to ourselves is involved but depth in relation to the whole of which we are part. This is the way of true selfknowledge and it is why true self-knowledge is identical with true humility. Meditation opens up for us this precious form of knowledge, and it is what enables us to pass beyond mere objectivity – merely looking at the mystery of God as observers – and to enter the mystery itself. This knowledge becomes wisdom once we have entered the cloud of the mystery and when we know no longer by analysis and definition but by participation in the life and spirit of Christ.

So we learn by the path of meditation what cannot be learned otherwise, what is unknowable as long as we hesitate to becomereal pilgrims of the spirit. Following this path is a fundamental requirement of the Christian life which must be a life lived out of the depths rather than the shallows. This is why Christian discipleship is the completion of the human condition. In this condition man always seeks the complete action, something that will call forth all his powers simultaneously, focus and unify all the dimensions of his being. Until we have found this action we are restless, always mastered by distraction or desire masquerading as the reality which only this perfect action can lead us into.

Naturally, if we are truly human we know that this action is love. Only when we live in and out of love do we know that miraculous harmony and integration of our whole being which makes us fully human. This is always a practical rather than idyllic state: I mean that the human condition is always made up of frailties and imperfections, either of personality or environment. The Incarnation of God in the human condition, however, absorbs all these faults and accidents in such a way that they can no longer prevent us from the fullness of love. The saint is not super-human but fully human.

Every part of us, including our faults and failures, must be included in our commitment to the pilgrimage into this fullness. Nothing real is excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Realistic, human wholeness is the accumulative experience of staying on our pilgrimage. Gradually the separate compartments of our life coalesce. The room dividers are taken down and we find that our heart is not a prison made up of a thousand individual cells but a great chamber filled with the light of God whose walls are constantly being pushed back.

Meditation expands our knowledge of God because, in leading us into self-knowledge, it propels us beyond selfconsciousness. We know God to the degree that we forget ourselves. This is the paradox and the risk of prayer. It is not enough to study the paradox because, like love, it can only be known when it is lived firsthand. Once we have begun to live it we can read the great human testimonies of the spirit – the New Testament and the spiritual classics – from within the same experience. Until then, however, we are merely observers, at best waiting to begin.

It is not an easy paradox to grasp. How can one grasp the spirit? It helps though if we reflect on the human manifestation of this essential structure of reality. To love another person involves more than thinking of them, more even than enjoying their company, more even than sacrificing oneself for them. It involves allowing ourselves to be loved by them. This is perhaps the most moving and awe-inspiring mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming human God allows himself to be loved within the human range of love, as ordinarily as any infant, child, adolescent or adult.

The humility of God in allowing himself to be loved in the man Jesus is our cue for recognizing the basic structure of all reality. Our first step in loving God is to allow ourselves to be loved. The grammar of language is misleading here because there is nothing passive about allowing ourselves to be loved. Just as there is nothing passive about turning our attention off ourselves and nothing passive about saying the mantra – which are the ways we allow ourselves to be loved in any human or divine relationship.

Meditation takes us into the basic relationship of our life. It does so because it leads us into the intimacy with God that arises out of the eternal reality of his loving and knowing us. In doing so he calls us into being and human being is itself a response to the demand inherent in God’s love and knowledge of us. It is the demand that we love and know him. Yet, we can only know him, not as an object of our knowledge, but by participating in his own self-knowledge, his life, his spirit. Thus we are led back to the starting point of our being, his love and knowledge of us. We come to know and love God because we allow him to know and love us. We allow his self-knowledge to become our self-knowledge. This is the alchemy of love.

Knowledge such as this is certain and unshakeable. `Be rooted and founded in love,’ wrote St Paul. Just as the roots of trees hold the soil firm and stop erosion, so it is the roots of love that hold the ground of our being together. They provide the context in which we live and grow. And they each trace back to God as the first root of all being. The roots of love in our life bring us into context with him, with ourselves and with each other. And they show us that to be is to be in connection, each contributing to the other.

Sanity and balance mean knowing the context in which we live. This form of knowledge makes us sensitive to the presence of God in all our surroundings. Meditation teaches us in the only certain way, by experience, that his presence is not external to us. It is interior, the presence that makes up and holds together the ground of our being. So we come no longer to look for God’s presence in the externals of our life but to recognize him in them because our eyes are opened interiorly to his indwelling Spirit. We no longer try to grasp hold of God, to possess him. Rather we are grasped by his presence, interiorly and exteriorly, because we know that his presence is all pervasive and the ground of all that is.

To be possessed by God in this way is the only true freedom. The tyranny of love is the only true relationship. Inevitably we fear this as it develops or emerges during our pilgrimage, because our image of freedom is so different, so naively imagined as the freedom to do rather than to be. But if we have the courage to be simple and humble enough to enter this real freedom, then we discover in ourselves the power of a faith that is unshakeable. Christian confidence is the discovery of this unshakeability and it is this confidence that underlies Christian compassion, tolerance and acceptance. We are made wonderfully secure in our own existence by this discovery, and out of this security we are empowered to drop our defences and to go out to the other. Our faith is unshakeable, not rigid, because it is one with the ground of our being. Through Christ’s union with his disciples his faith becomes their faith and their faith is not an adjunct to their being. It is the breath of their spirit’s life.

So, deepening our commitment to this pilgrimage means deepening the knowledge that faith gives birth to in the soul. As Christ is formed in us, as we ourselves live no longer for ourselves but for him and as his spirit breathes the new life of faith into our mortal bodies, we do come to know Christ more deeply. Maybe it sounds arrogant to say we come to know Christ as we persevere in meditation. But the truth is not less than this. We come to know what it is to live every moment, every decision, joy or difficulty from within his presence and so out of the infinite resources of his power – the power of love and compassion, an unshakeable reality.

How do we enter this presence? How can we acquire this `knowledge that is beyond knowledge’? Because it is the knowledge of unknowing, it is the presence that forms when we allow ourselves to go beyond being present merely to ourselvesand instead become present to God – to be known and loved into full being by him. As we are unformed he is formed. We have to learn to forget ourselves. Nothing is simpler to do. It is the condition of full simplicity. Yet nothing – or so it seems – is more difficult for us. It is so easy in theory to accept this. But in practice it is so difficult to live and love as if the other were really more important than ourselves, or as if our first loyalty were really not to self but to the other.

The greatest difficulty is to begin, to take the first step, to launch out into the depth of the reality of God as revealed in Christ. Once we have left the shore of our own self we soon pick up the currents of reality that give us our direction and momentum. The more still and attentive we are, the more sensitively we respond to these currents. And so the more absolute and truly spiritual our faith becomes. By stillness in the spirit we move in the ocean of God. If we have the courage to push off from the shore we cannot fail to find this direction and energy. The further out we travel the stronger the current becomes, and the deeper our faith. For a while the depth of our faith is challenged by the paradox that the horizon of our destination is always receding. Where are we going with this deeper faith? Then, gradually we recognize the meaning of the current that guides us and see that the ocean is infinite.

Leaving the shore is the first great challenge, but it is only necessary to begin to face the challenge. Even though the challenges may become greater later, we are assured that we shall be given everything we need to face them. We begin by saying the mantra. Saying the mantra is always to be beginning, to be returning to the first step. We learn in time that there is only one step between us and God.

Opening our hearts to the spirit of Christ is the only way into the certain knowledge that that step has been taken. Christ has taken it in himself. He himself is the step between God and man because he is God and man. The language we use to express this mystery, the greatest and fundamental mystery of the human race and of all time, is pathetically inadequate – as the theological controversies down through the centuries have shown. No language or concept or metaphor can express the mystery of Christ, because Christ is the full embodiment of God and there can be no adequate expression of God except his own self-expression. The only way to know Christ is to enter his personal mystery, leaving ideas and words behind. We leave them behind in order to enter the silence of full knowledge and love to which meditation is leading each of us.

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