Like others I suspect, the reoccurring tension for me lies in my confusing what I can see with what really exists. I have two prayers that form the bedrock of my daily devotion that seem to help me with this.
The first is: Please God, show me what I have yet to be able to see. The field of my awareness takes shape from what I think I see in front of me. Yet, I know that what I see is actually the product of the interplay between an objective reality and my imagination that interprets what I see according to the available templates of my memory. I know this. Yet I live as if what I see and the way I perceive it is an accurate reflection of something objective, i.e. independent of my perception.
My second prayer comes from my adaptation of a line in the ancient Christian prayer known as the Salve Regina. This is a prayer of heartfelt intercession to Mary. It is a prayer I learned a long time ago and within my current spiritual practice it remains an artifact from the fervor of my Anglo-Catholic youth. It survives when many other aspects of this earlier spiritual phase have fallen away simply because one day I found myself unthinkingly changing the line that runs:
to you do we sigh, mouring and weeping passing through this vale of tears, to: to you do we sigh, mouring and weeping passing through this veil of illusion.
My adaptation reflects a shift in my spirituality away from a medieval notion of the plight of human suffering to a notion that suffering is a perception that is rooted in the tension between subjectivity and objectivity. Sometimes this tension reflects our imprisonment within the way memory confines imagination or put another way a reflection of being shackled by the familiar. However, this tension can also be a place of imaginative creativity when imagination breaks free an opens to new shifts in awareness.
There is a scholarly controversy over whether Ephesians is actually from the hand of Paul or from that of a later disciple writing in the style of Paul. The controversy over Ephesians is a modern concern and not one that would have made any sense to Paul, himself. Ephesians strikes a different tone with its focus on the qualities of an ordered spiritual life that indicates a less turbulent and more settled time than the one Paul lived through. Nevertheless in so many places it approaches the intensity of Paul’s vision. In the portion appointed for the epistle (Ephesians 3:14-21) on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, the author, whether Paul or not, articulates a powerful Pauline vision:
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
My heartfelt response to this passage is –if only. What I mean is, if only this expectation would resonate through my whole and undivided being. I long to expand my perception beyond the limitations placed by my need to stay within the security of what I already know. I so desire to comprehend beyond the limitations of what I think I see. I long for this Pauline expectation to become my reality. I live in the tension between such a hope and my encapsulation within a small, limited, and overly self-referenced perspective; a perspective resulting from still being firmly on this side of the veil of illusion.
In John 6:1-21, the gospel appointed for Pentecost 9 we receive the miracles of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. The feeding of the 5000 is one of those rare events recorded in all four Gospels.
John does not record many of the events that form the bedrock of the synoptic writers. Unlike Mark, Matthew and Luke, John is not writing a synopsis – general theological and chronological overview of Jesus life and ministry. John is constructing a theology of theophany i.e. God’s visible manifestation to humankind. He reconstructs the ministry of Jesus around seven signs, all of which focus attention on the nature of Jesus’ and God’s identity as intertwined. At the heart of John’s gospel lies his theology that in Jesus we see God; a God who reveals through signs or miracles.
Misapprehension, misunderstanding, rejection, are themes that run through John’s narrative of theophany because our ability to see reality is distorted by the veil of illusion constructed from our self-referenced and imaginatively encapsulated hopes and expectations. The crowds are firmly rooted on this side the of the veil of illusion, with Jesus on the other side. Interestingly, reality and illusion are often so close together, and can be likened to the opposite sides of the same coin.
The crowd is attracted to Jesus because of the signs he works, signs that make him a powerful target for the projections of their unrequited longing. For the crowd, Jesus is Moses or Elijah come again. The prophet of old who will lead them from their current state of subjection into a new promised land. Ecstatic with expectation, they try to make Jesus a king – the Messiah who will deliver Israel from its bondage. These expectations are close to the truth but perceived from the illusory side of the coin.
On the other side of the coin, John tells the story of the feeding of the 5000 to create an echo between Jesus and Moses. In John’s version Jesus echoes God through Moses feeding the people with manna – limitless bread in the wilderness. After feeding the people John has Jesus go up onto a mountain beside the lake – a probable reference to the Golan Heights, but an echo of Moses ascending Mt Sinai to witness theophany.
It’s as if God’s self revelation is designed to actively trigger the people’s collective religious memory, creating an association between Jesus and Moses. God desires that the people see that in Jesus something radically new is coming to pass. Yet, then as well as now, humankind tends to limit itself to perceptions shaped by what it already knows. The need is for humankind to see something new. John sees in Jesus something new and he never seems to come to terms with the fact that most people around him don’t. Today, the danger is that we continue to construct God as a manifestation of our own self image – a kind of anthophany.
The feeding of the 5000 followed by the walking on the water are the fourth and fifth of John’s miracle signs. But, what is a miracle? Put most simply a miracle seems to be an event that on the face of it has no rational or logical explanation according to our expectations of how things work in the universe.
On one side we have the externalists, those who see miracles as events in time and space that are miraculous because they mysteriously and inexplicably suspend the Newtonian laws of physics. The miraculous becomes its own explanation. On the other side we have the internalists, those who believe the seemingly miraculous is a psychospiritual event – something occurring within the inner consciousness of individuals. Between these two positions is a profound theological disagreement. The externalists affirm miracles because God can do what God likes, that’s the function of being omnipotent. The internalists counter with, having set up the laws along which the universe seems to operate, God becomes confined by a self-imposed restriction to only operate as a good Newtonian.
For me, the question do miracles happen is the wrong question. Miracles are defined not by how they happen but by their consequences. Miracles change perceptions and the course of events. I am happy to be agnostic about whether they are external or internal events because I find this distinction to be an illusion. I have only my internal perception of any objective event in external reality.
I prefer to see miracles as those experiences that show us the more than what we are conditioned by memory-shaped imagination to expect. It’s not do they, or how do they, happen? It’s how is our sense of the possible reshaped by such events so that we make the imaginative leap into expecting more than we have dared to hope for?
The hypothesis that I have been at pains to articulate here is that the expectations of God’s KINGDOM are never limited to the possible or even to the probable. The expectations of the KINGDOM come to us in the form of a discovery that we are not limited by the boundaries of only what we can imagine.
The veil of illusion is permeable! Through courageous expectation and hope-filled action we are called to comprehend the breath and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge so that we may not only be filled with the fullness of God, but be those through whom God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.