Many years ago, early in my spiritual journey, I read a story about Uncle Frank Davis, a Pawnee elder. He told two young journalists that as a boy he had asked his mother how a person becomes wise. His mother explained that each of us follows the path through life that the Creator makes especially for us. Along our unique path, the Creator drops "little slips of paper" to provide us with instructions on the right use of our lives. It's our task, she told her son, to notice the scraps of paper as they fall around us, to pick them up and to put them in our pockets. When we need guidance along life's way, all we have to do is reach deep into our pockets and pull out the slips of paper that, pieced carefully together, comprise our particular map.
We all need a map. God is wildly unpredictable and mysterious. When good things happen, we often credit them to divine intervention. When bad things happen, we find we cannot grasp how God could cause us to suffer or leave us in despair. In our greatest moments of need, we assume God has failed us personally. These concerns have haunted our hearts even more since the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Perhaps the larger question begging consideration in our present world-turned-upside-down is this: Who then, or what, is the one we call God?
Most religious traditions teach that God is a living being-the Father or Mother of us all-who lives outside us, takes personal interest in each of us, and has a direct influence on the events of our lives. Is it possible this is an outdated conceptualization of the magnificent Mystery that lives at the exact epicenter of all life? Possible that, in our attempts to maintain the illusion of order in a troubled and turbulent world, we try too hard to force the Mystery of God into names, forms, images, or even belief systems? And while these attempts to pin God down may offer small measures of comfort, they may also fail to convey the complex nature of Ultimate Reality. Both theologians and scientists are concluding simultaneously at this point in human understanding that the Mystery of God-both wondrous and baffling-is almost impossible to proclaim.
For many traditionally religious people, this news is unsettling. It shakes the foundations of all they believe. For individuals who are less traditional in their search for a meaningful relationship with the sacred, the possibility that God is a complex, inexplicable, unpredictable mystery explains their lifelong discomfort in the presence of religious dogmas that don't correspond with their own personal encounters with God. Many quiet, unassuming everyday mystics choose to remain silent because religious traditions and leaders discount their personal experiences of God for failing to substantiate a doctrine.
Early in my own religious upbringing, I was startled to discover that church doctrine explained God in terms that departed wildly from my personal experiences of That-Which-Is-Sacred. Even then I knew my direct relationship with the Sacred communicated information far more authentic, more embodied, and thus more believable to me about the unpredictable, unexpected, changing nature of God than what I learned in church. I adopted a belief that God is more mysterious than I would ever understand and began to address God simply as Mystery. This belief led me to perhaps the most important of my questions: Are we failing to experience the wonder of the Sacred Mystery in our midst-and to learn from it-because we foolishly and mistakenly believe God has already finished revealing its holy nature to us?
It seems plausible that we're being challenged to revise our understanding of God. Could God be something other than what religious doctrine tells us? Could God be evolving and changing in the same way humanity is evolving, and therefore be different today than God was two thousand years ago? Questions like this fascinate me.
I take the position that God's nature is always changing, continually growing and revealing itself to us in new ways. In my opinion, we have to remain on our toes for whatever (borrowing from my colleague Michael Dwinell) "God is up to" in our lives and in the world today. This means I cannot assume someone else-for example, the world's clergy-knows God better than I do and can interpret God to me. I alone am responsible for paying attention to how the Mystery of God continually reveals itself in and through my life. No one else can do this for me.I'm the one who must develop my own relationship with, and understanding of, the nature of the Divine Mystery.
Think about it: If no two people receive the same set of instructions, it's also possible that no two individuals are meant to experience the One of Many Names in exactly the same way. Although I strive to be honest and real with the people I love, I rarely reveal myself in the same way to any two of them. Each person draws out a slightly different aspect of the many parts of my complex nature. It's as we elicit different "threads" in the intricate tapestry comprising each of us that we actually help one another to grow into all we're meant to be.
Isn't it possible that the One of Many Names is even more complex and intricately designed than we human beings are, never revealing itself in its totality, but rather revealing its many different aspects to each of us at different times and in different ways? Our human need to conceptualize God in specific images or forms may ultimately limit our grasp of God's complexity, just as a friend who knows one part of my nature very well would be misguided if she assumed to know all parts of me well. Further, in healthy relationships, it's a mark of respect to allow the people we love to teach us who they are as they change and grow through life's many challenges. It's a mark of disrespect, however unintended, for us to behave as if we know them better than they know themselves. In a similar way, perhaps it's our spiritual mandate to wait for God to tell us who-or what-God is. If so, doesn't it make sense that our job is to listen, experience, and learn as we encounter the Mystery for ourselves?
It's said throughout the great wisdom traditions that God names God by saying only: I am that I am. This statement points strongly to the possibility that the Sacred Mystery is consciousness or essence rather than person or being. By using names for God that, while comforting, may limit the depth and breadth of our experience of this Mystery, we may unintentionally close our eyes and hearts to that which is attempting to reveal its ever-developing nature to us. Striving to find and experience God, we may fail to see the holiness blooming in the garden, the suffering throes of anguish staring at us through the face of an enemy, or hear the simple knock at the door of our own hearts.
Who, or what, is God? Are we prepared to allow traditional images to fall away and our personal encounters with the Mystery to teach us something of God's ever changing, ever expanding, ever disclosing nature? It's been the most consistent experience in my spiritual life to have things-a relationship, a belief, a way of understanding myself, my possessions-stripped away just at the moment I grow complacent with them. I strongly suspect I'm not alone. As a therapist-witness for others making earnest efforts to live in spiritual integrity, I see this stripping away process all the time. We just draw a bead on God . . . and God changes.
In order to come to terms with a more fluid view of God, one I hope is actually more authentic, I've spent the last dozen years of my life quietly paying attention to what's right in front of me, revealing something about the nature of spiritual reality. I gave up trying to comfort myself with answers. In place of that, I began to ask questions that challenged me to mature as a spiritual seeker, and gave those questions room to roll around in me. I joined in hundreds of conversations with other seekers who want, as I do, to have a real relationship with the Sacred, whatever that might be and wherever it might lead. I tried to remain open to a Presence of Mystery teaching me about itself in small moments, through ordinary people and everyday events. Some of these events have been so imperceptible as to almost escape notice. Others set off tremors in the bedrock of my life.
The net effect is that I am changed in my relationship with God, and I have come to believe that God, the one I call Mystery, is also changed by its relationship with me. I have no way to prove this belief so that you, the reader, might believe it along with me. Yet it's consistent with all we as a people are learning about the interactive nature of reality. Everything changes as a result of our paying attention. It's just common sense that there exists a great feedback loop operating throughout all of creation. In the way a friend's insight suddenly inspires an insight in me, I wonder if we grow more conscious in spiritual tandem with God-Consciousness, and if God-Consciousness expands because we make efforts to awaken.
Can it be that God and humanity assist each other in the process of expanding, transforming, and ultimately evolving into more of what we are intended to be? Perhaps as the Sacred Mystery widens, broadens, and deepens its experience of reality, there's a corresponding expansion in human awareness. And as human awareness or consciousness grows, it's possible there is a corresponding flutter in the heart of God-consciousness.
God may be growing along with us as we evolve humanity into greater consciousness, and we may be growing along with God as the Mystery expands its ever-changing, ever-evolving ability to be conscious of itself and life. This concept seems to stretch us beyond any present theology. The far reach of this thinking appears to be that God may not know answers to our worries and concerns in advance. That God is as confounded and uncertain as we are by what might happen next. That God is waiting on the actions of the human family, just as we are, to see what future we will choose.
I see this possibility as good news. It suggests to me that each of us greatly matters to the future of existence. Each of us participates in determining if, and how rapidly, the consciousness that infuses life will expand or will, conversely, contract. This idea presumes we are not victims of a random universe: I make a difference to the Unfolding Mystery in the way I live my life, and so do you. From this perspective we can begin to see ourselves as partners with the Mystery in shaping the future of life on this planet and throughout the cosmos. Although some people may call this view arrogant or heretical, I call it humbling. The thought that I am called upon to live my ordinary life in such a way that I enable humanity to move forward in consciousness, and perhaps help God make leaps of consciousness as well, touches me profoundly and has me considering every step I take more thoughtfully.
This leads me back to those "little slips of paper." Just as we might partner with the Mystery in the evolving experience we call life, so might the Mystery be partnering with us, as we become what a number of prominent theologians call "God bearers" and others call "bearers of light." Such a proposition suggests that we are on this path with a map, although we often seem not to be. The map is actively constructed of all those clues to the Mystery that are dropped in our way. As in this book, many of those clues come to us in the form of stories, some personal and some transcending the personal to become universally applicable. We find these clues and piece them together until the puzzle begins to form a recognizable shape and direction. In this way, the Mystery we call God is a not a being, but an internal compass that points us toward true north, or home.