Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Theosis and the Center

Theosis and the Center
by Bill Ryan

"Meditation is returning to the Center and there finding the gateway to the Center of All." John Main

We live in a time when humankind can no longer afford to misuse religion to seek power and domination over others. The voices that seek an apocalyptic clash of religious superiority and exclusive truth claims through military violence cannot prevail. Now, more than ever we must seek to understand the "sapientia perennis," the perennial wisdom that is at the source of all authentic religious inspiration and the common ground of awakening to Ultimate Mystery that the great sages and saints across time and traditions have pointed to. Militant fundamentalism in the 21st century, armed with nuclear weapons, presents a threat to human survival and the survival of all creation. As we speak at least one U.S. presidential candidate is advocating the nuclear destruction of Mecca and other Muslim religious sites as an appropriate strategy.

Those of us who name ourselves as followers of Christ must also remind ourselves that in the name of Christ, a thirty years war was fought in Europe, decimating the population and infrastructure of entire nations, with countless acts of barbarity and brutality done for the sake of exclusive truth claims. We must also remind ourselves of the forced conversions of millions of indigenous peoples who were enslaved or murdered in the name of the cross of Christ. In similar ways other world religions have their own stories of inflicting violence and domination, and subjugation of others for the sake of allegiance to a creed. And today terrible civil conflicts continue in the name of religion in Iraq, between Muslim and Muslim, in India, between Muslim and Hindu, in Sri Lanka and Thailand between Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim.

Who Owns God?
Who owns God or the Ultimate? By any name or definition? Authentic religious inspiration should never be about exclusive pronouncements of allegiance to a "winning team" or the claim to have exclusive ownership of Divinity or access to God. Yet throughout time and history wars and persecutions have been about these exclusive claims for purposes of power and dominance. And yet, the mystics and saints remind us, though rarely we listen, that the real spiritual question facing a person on the journey is who owns us? Are we surrendered consecrated beings? Are our lives offered ceaselessly to the love of the Divine in service and healing to God's Creation, or are our lives possessed by the demons of our own obsessions for power, security, and greed in a vain attempt to escape the truth of the powerlessness of our own fragile and transitory passage in this life?

As the Benedictine mystic and teacher of contemplation, John Main O.S.B. has said, the solution is for us all to "return to the Center" and there find the gateway to the Center of all. For those on the Christian path by returning to the Center we can find the center of our own Faith, the Heart of Christ, and the central teaching of the human journey, the journey of Theosis, of the call to become transformed in Christ. To find and realize Christ at the Center we must journey to the Center, the "Deep Heart" of our deepest inner being, the sanctuary of the Beloved, and innermost dwelling place of Christ within us. As Jesus has told us in his Gospel teachings, the really good news is this: God is accessible, forever offered, forever present in the Inner Kingdom, and that our true worship and sacred dwelling of Communion with Him is not the building of bricks and mortar on the hill but Love's sanctuary at the Center. Our primary impediment is the mind's obsessions and the behavioral compulsions that flow from them. Abiding in the Heart in Prayer of the Heart offers us this freedom from such enslavement. The book, Pathways to the Heart- Sufism and the Christian East is about the common ground of our liberation in the God Mystery in the Heart as taught in the Semitic mysticism of Eastern Christianity and mystical Islam.

The Center and The Transformation of Theosis

One of the great contributions that Thomas Keating has made to the modern world is to synthesize the ancient wisdom of contemplative prayer and present it in modern terms. Among the teaching devices I received from him that remains helpful is a simple diagram. The diagram is a circle with concentric circles within. The circle is a metaphoric representation of the human soul or consciousness. Between the concentric circles are layers of soul or consciousness. The first layer near the outer layer or surface of soul is labeled as "ordinary consciousness." By this Fr. Keating means this is the layer that most human beings spend most of our time and focus in. It is a relatively unawakened state, based on the competitive separateness that dominates most social interactions, infused by the conditioning of the culture in which we have been socialized to live. The next layer is called "spiritual consciousness." For some this may be fleeting, for others it may be expansive and well developed. It represents the degree that our orientation to life comes from the interior life of God in contrast to a life dominated by egoic separateness and the values of the culture. Another circle close to the center is called "true self." This is the "unconditioned life" of our true identity and being as child of God, animated by the Divine Indwelling, the Imago Dei or Image of God within us. This is the outer layer of the "deep heart" or Center that John Main references. And deepest of all, beyond our intentional reach but still beckoning to us, is the Center of the center, the "Divine Indwelling." This is the seat of Christ's Presence within us. As Merton says, "it is not at our disposal," (Le Pointe Vierge) but those of us who are on the journey of transformative prayer, ever seek to bring our soul to the "disposal" or access of the Beloved's Presence within us.

The process of prayer and transformative life in God is to bring the entirety of the soul to be accessible, to be a "lit flame" of this Divine Fire within, to be a lamp of the Divine Light within. Faithfulness in a lifetime of growing communion and surrendered self to the Source within is what makes "Theosis" or divinization of our humanity, possible. This "Light Within," as Thomas Kelly calls it, is the common ground of all true religious inspiration. Our mutual reverence of it, our realization of Divine Life in ourselves and our mutual adoration of the Beloved in all human beings, can be the basis of healing the great religious divides that so afflict and torment humankind. It can also be the basis of an appreciation of the diversity in the world that honors differences while not trying to make them disappear artificially.

So much blood has been spilled between the Abrahamic Faiths who have common ancestry, over who "owns" God, over who is "chosen" and over who has the rights to possession and dominance over the historical sites of Jerusalem. Such delusion and such hatred stand in resistance to the Great Mercy that enfolds us all. What we all have is the common inheritance as children of the Most High. What we all have is the common challenge to become surrendered to that Great Mystery we so love and adore rather than seek to own or possess a fictional exclusive right over that same Holy Mystery. The sanctuary of the Most High is within each of us, in the "Deep Heart. Jesus said we need just come close to it, "as a little child." Why should bricks and mortar and stones be our obsession? In summarizing this simple Wisdom I recall the words of the Coptic hermit, Abuna Matta al- Maskin who stated: "Jerusalem the Holy is right here, in and around these caves; for what else is my cave except where my Savior Christ was born; what else is my cave but the place where my Savior Christ was take to rest, what else is my cave but the place where He most gloriously rose again from the dead. Jerusalem is here, right here and all the spiritual riches of the Holy City are found in this 'wadi.' (cell)." (Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, p.92) The cave of the heart, the interior communion with Christ we open to in our daily practice of Prayer of the Heart, is the path to peace within us and peace between us.