“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” And he said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
John 1: 50-51
At times it can feel as if humanity is suffering from a universal attack of claustrophobia. Rather than experiencing life and world as bounty, as a place of awe and wide expanse, we rather see it as constrained and scarce. Because we now feel the effects of our over consumption, we become fearful that there is not enough for all of us. We live in fear of the greatly exaggerated threat of the “hordes of immigrants” and refugees at the gate who threaten to deprive us of our due. We reduce our greatest human needs to the need for work, which is meant to be but a means to the greater ends for which we are created. We reduce our desire to find our place in the grandeur of the cosmos to the possessions we accumulate in our personal habitat. We see in our needy brothers and sisters not a call to our deeper instincts of compassion and possibilities of transcendence but rather a competitive threat for limited resources.
We are, in large part, no longer fellow citizens of a common home but rather encapsulated individuals seeking shelter among a small number of fellow companions of like-mindedness and prejudice. We no longer experience a sense of awe, of connection to the world and the universe as a whole, to the cosmic Mystery itself. A confrere from upstate New York tells the story of how, as a high school senior, he made his first trip to the coast and experienced the ocean for the first time. As he and his friends stood on the shore, the brother who had accompanied them said to them, “Makes you feel very insignificant, doesn’t it?” To stand at the foot of a mountain, or perhaps even more on its summit, or to stand at the edge of the sea is to have one’s sense of reality, and so sense of self, altered. The favorite recreation of my friend and me is to walk along the beach, sometimes speaking but often merely in silence. As he always points out, just to be at the ocean changes one’s sense of his or her place in the world, as soon as he stands before the ocean, his whole consciousness and being are altered.
Theodore James Ryken recounted an experience of conversion at the age of 19 which was initiated by the sense of being put in his place. At the level of our unconscious, we human beings are always attempting to reduce the world to the point where we can find ourselves where we’ve always longed to be, at its center. The truth, however, is that our place is very different. We are actually but one of the blades of the grass or one of the grains of sand on the seashore. The difference between our spiritual identity and the identity we create out of our unconscious impulses and drives lies in the difference between what Adrian van Kaam calls our transcendent and functional form potencies. At the vital and functional levels we only experience human potency in our control, manipulation, and domination of reality. At the level of spirit, in our transcendent potency, we experience the fulfillment of our deepest destiny and call when we live in awareness of our true place. We recognize that our true “significance” comes from living the truth of our place, our relationship to all that is. Our true lives are lives with connection to life as a whole, as a small but vital participant in the mystery of all that is.
When we lose contact with our true place, when we reduce the world to the size we can manage, we lose our true relationship to each other. This is why so often social and political life for many of us often feels like a game of “bumper cars” at the annual fair. We relate to each other merely as colliding egos. To realize the reality of our communion with each other requires that we realize our true and proper place in relationship to the universal, to the cosmos, to Mystery. When we live in worlds of our own mind’s creation, there is no common place for us to meet. There is no measure of reality or truth beyond the limits of our own feelings, thoughts, and prejudices. Our awareness is limited to our own perspective.
Today is the Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. Despite a resurgence in popularity some years ago, a fad which seems to have passed, angels tend to be a problematic concept for our secular consciousness. This is due, in large part I suspect, to the disconnection described above between ourselves and all that is greater than and beyond us. When we are in proper relationship to the whole of life, we recognize the connections we experience between our own limited consciousness and the reality of the whole. We know, for example, that there are times when we exceed and transcend what we know to be our limits. We experience first hand that our touch, our words, our minds become but instruments of something or someone who far exceeds our poor and limited abilities. For example, we sit before a blank page, or before a group or class, or with a suffering friend and words are given to us and expressed through us that we did not realize we had. We hear of persons who have shown extraordinary courage in the face of danger or the need of another. Most often when they are designated as heroic they will refute it saying that they spontaneously acted in the moment in the way that was necessary to them. It was as if, they’ll say, someone or something acted through them. Most of us have experienced at times being overcome with an experience of consonance or peace in the midst of a difficult, sorrowful, or painful situation which seemed the last place such an experience could occur. For all our protestations to the contrary, we are all very familiar with our own “connection” to a source of inspiration and grace that far exceeds our “common sense” of the world.
How, then, can we who have seemingly lost connection with mystery re-connect to it? It seems that the way is, as so often in the realm of the spiritual life, a way of paradox. We are to connect to the all, to know again our place and relationship to the Mystery, by, as Susan Muto writes, “seeing small.” In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches that if we are to overcome anxiety we must “look at the birds of the air” and “consider the lilies of the field.” To re-connect to the whole we must first connect with the particular. In highly rational-functional cultures we tend to live largely in our heads, as victims of our own thoughts. We actually reduce our lives to our own thoughts about the world. We replace the real thing with our image of it. We see this being acted out when people standing before the Grand Canyon or a masterpiece of art take a photograph of it rather than being with it. Put simply, in our minds we distance ourselves from reality. To come back to reality, we need to look and to consider. As we do, we shall experience the whole in the part, the mystery in the blade of grass, the bird in the sky, or the face of the beloved or strange other.
As we re-connect with the world, we also re-connect with the Mystery that is our own source. We begin, then, to rediscover that God ‘is not far from any one of us. In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17, 27-8) The life and the being that we share with the Mystery is always being communicated to and through us, as our life in turn is always returning to the One from whom it comes. For us, as for Jesus, “the angels of God are ascending and descending” at each moment of our lives.
Primordial water mantled a young planet—this is true though particulars are lacking. The sun that had made the planet was younger than the water it shone on—also true. In its new light the seas could slide and slap and shine. All very well. Then somehow—again no particulars—a moon appeared, cool and demure but with pull enough to countervail gravity and lift the sea above the constraints of its own vastness.
Like most parables this one might as well be called a metaphor. It is meant to suggest the feeling all of us have who try something difficult and find that, for a moment or two perhaps, we succeed beyond our aspirations. The character on the page speaks in her own voice, goes her own way. The paintbrush takes life in the painters hand, the violin plays itself. There is no honest answer to the inevitable questions: Where did that idea come from? How did you get that effect? Again, particulars are lacking. We have no language to describe the sense of a second order of reality that comes with these assertions of higher insights and will override even very settled intentions, when we are fortunate.
Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays, pp. 273-4