I have been pondering lately about God, or the idea / being / [what word is even adequate to describe that which?] we call God. One of the questions I went into my retreat with was about conceptualizing “God out there versus God in here, in me.” Maybe you know what I mean … or maybe this question makes no sense. What I’m trying to describe is a God-image of Outside, transcendent, Other (the God-image I grew up with) versus Inside, mystical, Self. Even with mystics, there is a similar difference mystical union (person’s soul can be united with God, but they are two different entities coming together: more commonly found in Christian mystics) versus mystical identity (person’s deepest self, it is discovered, is God … and right there, some of you probably will stop reading, as it sounds a lot like heresy to you. I hope you keep reading anyway.).
I tended to bounce between outside versus inside. When I was in need of help, or asking for something, I tended to direct my question or thought toward “Outside God.” “Oh God oh God, please let me get to work on time, oh God, please heal this patient, oh God, our world is falling apart, please help!” However, when talking about my beliefs, or meditating, I tended to think of things in terms of “Inside God.” I would tell my CPE group, “God is everywhere, God is in everyone. There is no where God cannot be, and God is not “out there.” (This concept of God is also known as “panentheism,” which is different from “pantheism.” Basically, panentheism says God is in everything. Pantheism says that everything is God.) And one of my biggest spiritual practices I developed this summer was trying to sit quietly, reflecting inside, and listening to the truths that were coming out of me … not any outside source. Yet it felt that in practice, my prayers belied my stated beliefs.
So what does this have to do with mosquitoes and monks… and the Milky Way?
While camping, I was reading Wherever You Go, There You Are, and was really looking forward to practicing mindfulness and being in the moment and being still while enjoying the great Kentucky outdoors.
Ha ha ha.
As it turns out, the Great Kentucky Outdoors are a sticky, humid, hot, mosquito- and gnat-filled mess in the middle of August. I couldn’t lay down in my hammock to read or just look at the leafy tree tops without feeling like my skin was being eaten alive by hungry blood-suckers. I couldn’t go on a hike in the woods without gnats buzzing in my ears, flying in my eyes [read here for a poem dedicated just to that experience], and creating such a nuisance that I couldn’t hardly look around me or hear the birds singing or the wind in the trees. And please don’t get me started on the spiders and the spiderwebs … I didn’t know I was afraid of spiders. Now I do know.
So because I had such a lofty goal that I felt I was completely not achieving, I did what any normal human does: I berated myself. “I’m feeling so miserable! Why can’t I just be in peace? Why can’t I use the difficult circumstances as an even better opportunity to practice mindfulness? And anyway, I still have it so good, I have an easy life, it’s my choice to go camping, and I’m complaining about bugs??? Really??” I did not feel very mindful, yet alone holy or in touch with my God-self.
Then I went to the Abbey of Gethsemani (where Thomas Merton lived as a monk!!) for a 5 day retreat. It was amazing! A shower, a toilet, and running water! Air conditioning, and a bed! A patio overlooking a garden! It was so pleasing to me, even while I smiled bemusedly at myself about how enthusiastic I was about human pleasures- luxuries, truly, for so much of the world- luxuries so many have never experienced.
As many probably are, I was fascinated by the monks, particularly the young ones: knowing that these young men were about my age, and were either exploring the possibility or had already committed to a lifetime of being single, of celibacy, of rising daily at 3 a.m., of prayer and study and physical labor and lack of electronics and communication. To turn your back on all that the world has to offer, to live a life of such simplicity (and to give up partnership and intimacy, for the rest of your life???), trusting that your asceticism will draw you closer to God? I understand in theory, but in practice, my emotions were in a state of disbelief while I was there.
After several days, I can’t say I fully understood, but I understood a little better. It was a beautiful thing, to slow down life enough to the point where my most natural inclination was to turn toward reflecting, prayer, and God. There is something so sweet in the stillness of doing nothing: nothing that will gain you any attention or notoriety, nothing that will make an impact on the world, nothing that seems to really “matter” to anyone else. Because that question, of course, is the biggest cry of my generation: “I want to do something that matters! I want to make a difference!” And we run about in a state of interior distress, like a bubbling ocean, desperately trying to find a way to matter in this world, all the while feeling quite uncomfortable in our own skin. Even while I was there, I still experienced that feeling of discomfort in my skin, of being quite sure that I did not deserve this sweet state of nothingness, of justifying my “nothingness” by reassuring myself that when I got home I was definitely going to do “something.” But when I was not occupied by those concerns, I had moments of just being, when I knew that just being really was okay… at least for this moment.
My most favorite routine while I was there was to get up early (which for the monks, is simply their normal routine, at 3 a.m.), sleepily listen to their chants and scriptural readings in the Vigils service, then pour myself a coffee that had been cooking in the carafe all night long, wrap myself in a blanket, and shuffle out to the garden. I’d find the darkest spot that still had as open a view as possible of the night sky and lay down on the sidewalk, still warm from the sun’s rays the day before. I would constellation hunt, which wouldn’t take long (I don’t know many constellations, and the sky was usually not that clear), then let my mind relax to be in awe of the universe.
I love the night sky. I don’t like being cold, and Indianapolis has much too much light pollution and cloud coverage, so I don’t view the night sky as much as I’d like. But when I go camping, I am in awe of stars, and the unimagined possibilities I behold.
There is so much wonder. So much awe. So much glorious vastness, and I am reminded that I am here, so small, that the issues that consume my day-to-day living are merely set here on Planet Earth, concerning me and a few others, and meanwhile this glorious universe goes on spinning.
I had an image, while laying on the warm, hard sidewalk, of my little heart bursting forth out of my body, seeking connection with All-That-Is that I experienced in viewing the night sky. And All-That-Is’s heart- its connecting spirit- was bursting forth from the night sky, reaching down to me. Our spirits connected in this vastness. I belonged, and I was part of this.
And I had what felt like a very profound yet incredibly “duh!”-like and simple realization. This glorious universe, this majestic night sky: I did not create this. And to go with it, I am not the only one in this world. I realized I had felt limited by thinking about
“God inside,” as if “God inside” had to be limited to only my inside. Instead, when I ask about “God Inside,” I need to remember I am asking about everyone’s God inside.
This question of God Outside versus God Inside is not an either / or question. The Spirit inside me is the Spirit inside you. It is also the Spirit that created – or that embodies – the galaxy.
So for a moment, as we were suspended in the night air as stars glimmered millions of light-years away, and I felt Presence beyond yet within me, I held my answer. Yes. God inside, God outside.