Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Reflections on a Recent Retreat

As a former novice for six years at the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, KY, James Finley was privileged to have Fr. Louis, OCSO, better known as Thomas Merton, not only as Novice Master, but also as spiritual director. Finley later left the monastery, married Maureen Fox, raised a family, and became a clinical psychologist in private practice, an author, and a popular retreat leader. His work deals with the contemplative experience which usually begins with what Finley calls, in his book The Contemplative Heart, “intuitions, intimations, and experiences of the spiritual path of contemplative self-transformation.” He draws on both Christian and Buddhist sources, to which Merton first introduced him. The following are brief reflections on Dr. Finley's recent retreat: “Following the Mystics Through the Narrow Gate”, given April 30-May 2, 2010, at Mercy Center, Auburn, CA, the sixth of his retreats which I’ve attended over the past 16 years.

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To put it succinctly, the retreat was an introduction to the teachings of the mystics on how to become one with God by following the narrow path (Matthew 7:13-14). Or, as James Finley described it, was a sort of map of “the inner landscape of the awakened heart.” Using writings of Thomas Merton, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, St. Teresa of Avila, Guigo II the Carthusian, Meister Eckhart, and St. John of the Cross, Dr. Finley spoke about the contemplative path, which evolves in ever deepening stages of awareness/consciousness, from non-seeing to knowing/seeing what is already always before our eyes: Infinite Reality which utterly empties Itself in giving Itself away in love. God’s generosity is infinite, and we are the generosity of God. We are who we were in God’s knowledge before we were ever created by God. God’s non-distinction from all things is their own reality, and so that reality is our very ordinariness.

The great mystics are unanimous in viewing the narrow path as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. But because we’re dealing with Infinite Reality, they are well aware that we creatures live in a “cloud of unknowing”. Merton himself suggested that even “a mystic is just a seasoned beginner.” The mystics all insist that fundamental to taking the path is the necessity to build a solid foundation of faith, love and hope.

All human beings, from time to time, experience “quickening moments”, “stirrings of love”, “fleeting flashes”. Such moments are a subtle recognition of the holiness of life as it is: in nature around us; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children; in helping others; and finally, in experiencing death, our own or others’. Such moments are revelatory. God passes through the gate in our momentary quickenings, awakening us to God already within us: our God-given Godly nature. God awakens us to see that we possess the capacity to live in habitual consciousness of God giving Godself away. This evokes in us a desire for a more lasting, daily deepening awareness of the life which is at once God’s and ours. The effect of having these awakenings is cumulative, i.e., they lead to our desire to set out upon the path leading to even deeper experiences of our oneness with God.

Our desire prompts us to pass through the narrow gate so as to have this habitual awareness of God who is one with us in our whole existence. The hitch for us, though, is that the gate is so narrow that nothing contrary to love can pass through. Two things, particularly, become obstacles: 1) anything unloving, and 2) a wandering/distracted mind. We can have no agenda other than sincere, humble love. Only God’s continuous process of converting us to faith, love and hope enables us to pass through. The ripening of faith, love, and hope in us begins with the awareness that God first passes through the gate in creating us, revealing to us the true nature of our situation. God shows us that, moment by moment, you and I cannot sustain our existence. Every moment of our existence is the sheer reality of God’s love. Infinite Love is in charge, even in the face of all the human failure, shortcomings, tragedy, illness, etc. which surround us. That love is in charge no matter how things humanly turn out. One thing, however, is sure: Christ hidden in God reveals the utter powerlessness and meaninglessness of any failure, suffering, or other negative in our life to name or define who we are. “In the beginning...God created the heavens and the earth...” (Genesis 1:1) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...All things came into being through [the Word]...” (John 1:1;3)

Finley describes a "seeker"  as "a person who, once having caught a glimpse of God, knows that only God will do". Our glimpses bring us to a fork in the road of life. We're faced with one of two choices: 1) to despair; or 2) to have the humility to go deeper. Eventually we become no longer satisfied with momentary quickenings. We determine to accept God’s invitation to “Come and see.” Our anchor in responding is a daily practice, simply, humbly, faithfully observed, and developed over time into a habit. A daily practice generally involves having a definite time, a definite place/space, usually with some sort of supportive religious symbol(s), sitting attentively, and spending a reasonable amount of time (perhaps 20 - 30 minutes) in silence, according to one’s schedule. Finley is fond of quoting Merton in this regard: “A little sincerity goes a long, long way.

Among the mystics, Guigo II the Carthusian, recommends a daily practice with four basic elements:
1) Reading (lectio divina): a sustained, humble receptivity, particularly through the reading of Scripture, the mystics, etc., to a kind of intimate beauty, not yet understood, but recognized.
2) Meditation: receiving the word, digesting it, perhaps recording in a journal, etc., applying the mind to listen, reflecting upon what is realized in attentive silence.
3) Prayer: turning to God, handing ourselves over in a response of love, our hearts moved by desire, by a growing ache.
4) Contemplation: resting entirely in whatever and however God wishes to satisfy that ache or the love we crave. No "answer" is sought because there is none: this is beyond thought or image. We await the unexpected presence of God and simply rest in it, if and when it comes. It may come and go, and our task is simply to faithfully let ourselves alternate back and forth between the other three elements with patience, peace, and hope, letting God work in us. We don’t attain the contemplative path; the path attains us.

God further awakens us to who we are in God. Prior to this, we’ve been one with God on our terms; God now beckons us to be one with God on God’s terms, with a sweet invitation to live in oneness even now, not to wait until we’re dead in order to live in God living in us. We begin to realize the radicality of oneness, beyond our comprehension, and we become afraid. Yet God continues to evoke in us the desire for infinite union with the Infinite. This “path” isn’t odd or eccentric, unusual perhaps, but still normal. It’s simply the blossoming stage, the unfolding, of the deeply lived life. In this part of the path we experience a radical penetration which is more than just a fleeting moment. The experience is so rich that the thinking self is transcended; we can’t will the richness of this awakening, even though we recognize that it’s happening. In it we perceive what Finley calls “virginal newness”. We begin to desire now the infinite fulfillment which awaits us on the other side of death. The urgency of love to consummate the union with God comes to us in moments of heightened awareness when all our faculties are transcended. We catch a glimpse of being one with God on God’s terms. It is boundary-less, breached infinitely by the infinite richness. It leaves us unable to speak about it. It’s the point at which the mystics‘ teachings are helpful in giving us hints of what’s happening.

From here on, we pass through the gate which is now so narrow that nothing less or other than God can get through. We're incapable of making this next level of awakening happen, but we can adopt the inner stance which might offer the least resistance to it, and this becomes the “tonal quality” of our daily practice/quiet time. We’re dying to all that is less than God as the basis of our security and identity. At this stage it is Infinite Love which “translates us into itself”, draws us through the narrow gate into infinite union with the Infinite. The mystics urge us to continue surrendering ourselves, even though we don’t understand all this, to lift our heart to and desire only the unseen One who has stirred within us, to maintain a simple intention of pure love.

The mystics go on to say that a further transformation takes place in which we and God simultaneously disappear as other than each other, without either God or us losing our distinction. Finley terms it “transubjective oneness”. “We experience the unfolding fullness of the God-given, Godly awareness of the God-given Godly nature of ourselves, others and all things.

Finally, God calls us to join God in passing back through the narrow gate into places in ourselves and others which are still unawakened, confused, and afraid. It is a call to compassion as union and fulfillment in process. God invites me to a commitment of compassionately embracing that part of myself which doesn’t yet “get it”, and to embrace the preciousness of the brokenness of the world as well as of the self. God calls us to experience the suffering of the whole world as our own suffering, and to embrace it with compassion. This is the “Christ consciousness” in the midst of the world. It is God’s call to become awakened to "the divinity of the ordinary". "Any claim to union other than ordinariness, [or] any ordinariness not infinite gets stuck" in passing through the narrow gate. All things are in God. God is in all things.

One of James Finley’s most powerful observations, in this retreat and in previous ones, has been that, if there’s any doubt about the reality of ordinary people’s experience of inner stirrings or about the depth of the hunger for deeper awareness of the Divine, one need only look around at the number of people who are drawn to retreats like the one we had. There were over 80 participants at the one in Auburn, most of whom had reserved spots long before the registration opened. I would say also, that doing meditation together (before or after each of the five conferences) in a group of this size is an exquisite experience of the Communion of Saints!

Dr. Finley will be leading a retreat on “Contemplative Healing” next May 13-15, 2011, at Mercy Center, Auburn, CA. His retreat schedule, how to subscribe to his newsletter, etc. can all be found at his website:

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