From Answering the Contemplative Call
“The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything,” said Julian of Norwich. This simple statement not only provides an important clue to the heart of mystical spirituality; it also points to the centrality of beholding as the essential contemplative practice. Our longing for God arises out of God’s love for us – a love that beckons us to this fullness of joy, by inviting us to behold God in all.
John Skinner, who translated several mystical classics including Julian of Norwich’s Revelation of Love into contemporary English, has this to say about beholding: “Perhaps the mental image to be conjured is a boy gazing with adoration across the room at the girl he knows loves him and she returning his glance with reciprocal love.” Beholding, in the mystical sense, is so much more than mere seeing or looking. It involves gazing, loving, receiving love, a sense of mutuality. We behold God in response to God beholding us. Maggie Ross, the Anglican solitary who has written eloquently on the centrality of beholding to the contemplative life, notes that “in our core silence, through our beholding, we realize our shared nature with God; we participate in the divine outpouring upon the world: incarnation, transfiguration and resurrection become conflated into a single movement of love.”
Ross also points out that, despite the fact that many modern translations of scripture have replaced the word behold with much more anemic words like see or even remember, both God’s first word to humans, (Genesis 1:29), and Jesus’s last words to his disciples, (Matthew 28:20), include the word behold. This is God’s first and final call to us, the heart of the contemplative call: Behold. Behold God’s presence in your life, whether seen or unseen, felt or unfelt, sensed or at a level deeper than sensation. Behold God’s love for you, implicit in your desire for love and your ability to love, wounded and imperfect as it may be. Behold God’s call – the very call summoning you to this intimate, transformed way of seeing. This call to behold is implicit in your awakening, no matter how subtle or dramatic your sense of being awakened may be. Even if you have no sense of being awakened, this call is yours. If you in any way long for God or God’s blessing in your life, this call is hidden in the heart of your longing.
Beholding is about learning to see mindfully, to watch, to pay attention. One of the Desert Fathers – whose name is lost to us but who was thought to be named Macarius and so is known to us as “Pseudo-Macarius” – compared the act of beholding Christ to an artist’s model holding his or her gaze steadily on the painter while the portrait is being made:
Just as the portrait painter is attentive to the face of the king as he paints, and, when the face of the king is directly opposite, face to face, then he paints the portrait easily and well. But when he turns his face away, then the painter cannot paint because the face of the subject is not looking at the painter. In a similar way the good portrait painter, Christ, for those who believe in him and gaze continually toward him, at once paints according to his own image a Heavenly man. Out of his Spirit, out of the substance of the light itself, ineffable light, he paints a Heavenly image. It is necessary that we gaze on him, believing and loving him, casting aside all else and attending to him so that he may paint his own Heavenly image and send it into our souls. And thus carrying Christ, we may receive eternal life and even here, filled with confidence, we may be at rest. (The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter)
Pseudo-Macarius makes an important, vital point in this passage. Beholding God is an end unto itself. But, paradoxically, it is also a means to an end. In our beholding, we are transformed – we have the “Heavenly image” of Christ engraved “into our souls.” This becomes the key to eternal life, confidence, and rest. It is also the key to love and service, to giving away this transformation to those we are called to cherish and for whom we care.
There is a danger in all this talk about beholding that I feel needs to be addressed, however. Bear with me, for this is a bit of a mind-stretcher – a point that is difficult for us to wrap our minds around, because it runs so counter to the dogmas and beliefs and sacred cows of our postmodern, post-industrial, entertainment culture. God is not an object. Repeat: God is not an object. God is not a “thing” out there that you can see, the way you can go off and see the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China. “Beholding God” is not just one more item on our Heavenly to-do list that we can check off once we’ve done it. God is pure spirit, and has no anchored location in space and time. God is not an object because God is the ultimate subject. We human beings are always the objects of God’s subjectivity, and not the other way around.
Now let’s go even farther down the rabbit hole. Because God is not an object, it is absurd to talk about “experiencing God.” Contemplation is not about us experiencing God; if anything it is about God experiencing us.
Okay, I don’t want to get too preachy here, so I’ll admit that it’s normal human nature for anyone interested in intimacy with God to talk about experiencing God. We all do it. I do it. This is how we have been trained to think. We think in terms of there being some sort of separation between humanity and God, and the way we bridge that divide is through the immediacy of experience. But beneath that “normal” way of thinking are some assumptions we have about God that aren’t always useful or wise. For one thing, the idea that we are separate from God is itself an inaccurate assumption.
Furthermore, it is easy to assume that God-the-object exists to take care of us, in the same way that corn exists to feed us or water to slake our thirst. We think God exists to take care of us, to bless us, and – while few of us will admit it – we secretly think it’s God’s job to entertain us. Isn’t this what mystical experience is all about? When people say, “I want to experience God,” on one level, they are challenging the dogmas and unquestioned assumptions of generations of Christian teaching – basically saying, “I don’t want to accept what someone else says is true about God; I want to see for myself.” I can respect the healthy skepticism that propels such a desire for direct union with God. But then what happens is that we default to our cultural programming, and we look for God to give us an “experience of God,” which can mean anything from a warm fuzzy feeling to a mind-blowing, mind-expanding Buddha-like mystical encounter worthy of George Lucas’s special-effects team. We figure that God is better than LSD, and so we expect that a true mystical experience will fry our circuits better than the best acid.
But all of this is based on the idea that God is an object, that we are the subjects, that we are running the show here, and that God’s job is to show up when we call and give us the celestial fireworks, neatly packaged within the theater found inside our skulls.
By the grace of God, it doesn’t work that way.
Anything we say about God quickly unfolds into a paradox. This can be seen in the Christian teaching about the Trinity – the recognition that God is One, singularity, perfect simplicity. And yet in this oneness, God includes three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no logic to explain this neatly away. Of course, theologians with minds far greater than mine have tried. Others, perhaps getting a little closer to the heart of things, have compared the doctrine of the Trinity to a Zen koan – a logic buster of an assertion that is designed to help spring human consciousness form the trap of dualistic thinking. What is more important than trying to figure out the Trinity (or walking away from it, dismissing it as absurd), however, is recognizing that everything we say about God quickly reveals yet another paradox. Call God “creator,” but then what do we make of the fact that destruction is a part of every creative act? Call God “Father,” but then wrestle with the fact that this image of a loving parent can lead to sexist assumptions about God (and humanity). Then there’s the classic atheist’s complaint: if God is all good and all powerful, why does God permit horrific injustice and evil to persist in the world?
Even the statement that I believe is the best affirmation we can make about God – “God is love” – ultimately fails. It fails because it is conditioned by human, mortal, dualistic understandings of love. Since we can’t get out of the box of what it means to be mortal, finite, imperfect flesh-and-blood creatures no matter how far we try to stretch our understanding of love in order to get a sense of God, we end up just reducing God in our minds to our limited ideas about love – rather than having our notions of love expanded and divinized by God. Even the most brilliant minds and the most loving hearts can hold only a human-sized caricature of God, a badly rendered image of what God truly is. Whatever reveals God conceals God. (As you read this paragraph, I hope you kept in mind the tension between kataphatic and apophatic approaches to God, for that tension dances all through my line of thinking here.)
God is not an object out there that exists for the benefit of our experience in here. That’s not to say that people can’t and don’t undergo countless wondrous, extraordinary encounters that only seem to make sense when understood as dramatic evidence of the presence of God in their lives. Yes, that happens all the time. But to say, “I want to experience God,” is rather like saying, “I want to understand love.” To understand love, find someone to love, and love him or her. To really understand love, find someone unlovable to love, or someone who is incapable of loving you back. Experiencing God works the same way. If you want to encounter God, then listen to Julian of Norwich and seek to behold God in everything. Don’t bother looking for God. Take a deep breath and relax into your longing, and remember that it is a mirror. God is looking for you.
So just how do you behold God in everything? Here’s where all the language and stories and teachings of the Christian wisdom tradition help us. The tradition affirms that God is omnipresent – which means God is everywhere, which means God is in everything, and you didn’t have a thing to do with it. God lives in you; God is the source of your being, your life. Yet God is out of control – that is to say, outside your control – and God is hidden in plain sight. God is gazing at you, beholding you, right here, right now. Never mind what you feel or don’t feel, perceive or don’t perceive. If you are experiencing God this very moment, a moment from now you can easily fill your mind with doubts. Who’s to say it isn’t just your imagination or some sort of psychological quirk – a flood of endorphins in your brain chemistry? But turn this around. If you are not experiencing God, perhaps that is just a psychological quirk or an anomaly in your brain chemistry. Carl Jung said: “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” Experienced or not experienced, God is present. Beheld or not beheld, God is.
Here’s another koan to chew on. Perhaps any effort we expend on trying to behold this hidden God will simply send us scurrying off in the wrong direction. The more you try to behold God, the more you end up merely beholding your efforts to behold God. The more you talk about God, the more your mind gets wrapped in your clever thoughts and educated opinions. C. S. Lewis has some funny things to say about this in his novel The Great Divorce, about Heaven and hell. Hell, it seems, has plenty of eminent philosophers and theologians in it, who spend all of eternity arguing with each other about how their particular way of talking about God is the “right” way. And all of them have missed the point.
There’s a Zen saying I find useful when considering the paradox of beholding: “Quit trying. Quit trying not to try. Quit quitting.” If you want to behold God in everything, don’t try to behold God in everything (or anything), but don’t not try either. Consider this: beholding God in everything is our natural state of being. So the trick is to unlearn all the ways we keep ourselves from beholding God. And that has a lot to do with learning how to shut up or at least slow down the internal chatter and commentary – the monkey mind that keeps intruding on your efforts to be silent. Beholding is linked to that open, spacious moment between the time we wake up and the time we kick our normal, gotta-stay-in-charge selves (i.e., our thinking, chattering, distracted monkey minds) into gear. That open, spacious place is not just something that happens at the moment when we first wake up. It is with us at all times. It usually seems, however, that we are too busy chattering with ourselves, or trying to maintain or assert control over our lives, to notice. It is scary even to consider surrendering our efforts to control our lives; yet if we can loosen the grip and relax into the awareness of the present moment with a humble and loving heart – then, by grace, we may join Julian of Norwich in beholding God in all.