The other day, I was teaching in a group, and as we finished a particular session of practice, one of the participants said, “The presence of God really came into the room!”
Words and concepts are limiting
For me it was a great example of how words can mislead us when we are talking about spiritual truth. Every religion and spiritual tradition has its ‘private language,’ phrases and terminology that are commonly used ‘in-house’. Many of these ‘spiritual’ phrases arise from a limited and relative perspective on what is an absolute and infinite reality. They are an attempt to explain our experience of God in ways that our mind can comprehend.
However, the mind in the service of the ego is not capable of understanding fully the things of the Spirit. Only when the soul has direct experience of the infinite reality of God, can we truly grasp the vastness and glory of God’s presence. Until then, unless we are very careful, the mind uses our words and those of others to construct concepts about God, rather than to point to a direct experience of God. But God is greater than any concept we can possibly have about Him. If we insist on trying to describe Him using conceptual thinking, it actually creates a box or a filter that limits our ability to experience the fullness of His presence.
Conceptualizing about God is the root of all religion – which has far more to do with the limitations of the human ego than it does with the infinite expansiveness of God.
Wise words point to truth
Of course words can be helpful too. When they are used wisely, they can point us towards a greater understanding of the nature of God and the things of the Spirit. To borrow a metaphor from another wisdom tradition, the Buddha said that all teachings are like a ‘finger pointing to the moon’. When we try to put words around God, we need to be sure those words keep our eyes on the moon, not the finger.
In this instance it is easy to see what the person was getting at by using this particular phrase. I assume they were trying to convey that they experienced God in a new and/or possibly more intense way. However, if we stop to think about it for a moment it is clear that these words could lock us in to an understanding of God that is incredibly limited – as if we were to think of a vast ocean in terms of what could be contained in a teacup.
God – the infinite, eternal, absolute source of all that exists, could not possibly be absent from any room. He is life and being itself. Anywhere there is life or being, He is there. Everything that exists, from the complexity of human life to the simple being of supposedly lifeless matter, takes its existence from the One whose breath vibrated it into being, and continues to vibrate it into being. Somehow our language needs to reflect and point to this truth.
As a writer and teacher on spiritual topics, I find myself challenged daily, to remake and reinterpret the language we use in order to more effectively point to, and encourage an experience of God’s eternal and infinite presence. We need to do this most especially with ‘holy’ texts, that have fossilized over time, and lost their original dynamic power to point us towards reality.
For example, an alternative (but nevertheless legitimate) rendering of the opening verses of the Bible might read like this:
Before time existed, God created all the different spiritual dimensions, and the physical universe. Now the physical universe was a chaotic formless emptiness, and the breath of God vibrated and shimmered over and through the chaotic emptiness, as God said “Let there be light,” and light exploded into being!
This unconventional rendering opens up the possibility of a more expansive view of God and the origins of the universe, than the traditional version. It opens up to us the God whose very life and being continues to vibrate the formless into form. The God who doesn’t need to ‘come into’ anywhere, since He is already present everywhere. Understood in these terms, the experience of an apparent increase in the presence is seen as being more about our own awareness extending and expanding to give us a glimpse of the absolute reality of God’s ever-present presence. This in turn can lead to us experiencing an abiding shift in perception, from the limited, relative reality of the world, to the absolute, eternal and infinite reality of God’s presence.
Silence is the greatest teaching
The inherent limitation of words in pointing us to an authentic encounter with God’s presence is one of the reasons why, for the seeker on a deep journey into the mystery of God, the path often leads away from words and into silence. Thomas Merton wrote:
The silence of God should teach us when to speak and when not to speak.
That is not to say that words are necessarily to be avoided altogether. Rather, it is about letting the presence or the absence of God’s voice lead us in choosing between words and silence, as we attempt to describe or teach about what is, for the ego or limited self, inexpressible. It is only when we ourselves find a place of silence and stillness in our own hearts that we can hear the whisper or the silence of God guiding us into all truth.