How do we pray if we can’t be sure what we’re praying to even exists? That’s the question posed by poet Christian Wiman who uses this short essay to explore the themes of faith and belief and to posit the idea that faith might go beyond belief and is something inextricably embedded in the physical reality of our lives. Wiman writes with candour in affirming that the most intimate and precious experiences of our lives might be tied into a state of not knowing, but also expresses his suspicion of an approach to spirituality based on discrete moments of mystical intensity. His ideas echo the Zen notion that even the most mundane moments of one’s life are imbued with great meaning and can all be engaged with as sacred experience.
I have never felt comfortable praying. I almost feel I should put the word in quotes, as I’m never quite sure that what I do deserves the name. I have a little litany of stations through which I move— thank you, help me, be with, forgive—but mostly I simply (simply!) try to subject myself to the possibility of God. I address God as if.
“We must believe in the real God in every way,” says Simone Weil, “except that he does not exist, for we have not reached the point where he might exist.” I don’t take this to mean that if we achieve some state worthy of God, he will pop into being like a genie. Rather, I think Weil is suggesting that devotion to God, for modern believers, involves learning to inhabit—rather than simply trumping with dogma or literal scripture—those elements of our existence that seem inimical to his: limitedness, contingency, suffering, death.
“God exists apart from our notions of what it means to exist, and there is a sense in which our most pressing existential question has to be outgrown before it can be answered. “
Contemporary people whose lives are marked by a searching, scorching spiritual focus—whether it’s conflicted believers, God-haunted agnostics, or even the neo-atheists whose very avidity gives them away—tend to be obsessed by whether God exists. What Weil is saying is that this is not beside the point exactly, but a misdirection: God exists apart from our notions of what it means to exist, and there is a sense in which our most pressing existential question has to be outgrown before it can be answered.
Religion has always emerged at the edge of what humans know. As that edge has been pushed further and further into the unknown, as our reach has extended into space and the atom and even the chemistry of our own needs and desires, some people have assumed that existence is, in the end, knowable. This not only contravenes centuries of human experience, duplicating the hubris that has doomed us so many times in the past, but more crucially, it violates, even desecrates, the most intimate, ultimate experiences of our own lives.
“This is one aspect of God’s nature, the infinite inhering in the specific, atomic insights that disclose our beings and situate us in something larger than ourselves, even as they cast us back into brute reality.”
There are moments in every life when one is overwhelmed—in a “positive” sense, though there may very well be suffering—by reality; or, more accurately, overwhelmed by reality spilling its boundaries. It can happen when you fall in love or, after the early nullifying horror abates a bit, when the world returns sharper and starker after a dire diagnosis. It can happen when eternity, in the form of your first child, comes crying bloody and impossibly beloved into time. It can even happen—though much less dramatically and obviously, at least for me, at least so far—in prayer. At such moments it is not only as if we were suddenly perceiving something in reality we had not perceived before, but as if we ourselves were being perceived. It is as if the interstellar spaces, and all the random atoms into which we will one day vanish, turned a kind of incomprehensible but utterly comprehending attention toward us. It is as if oblivion whispered in our ears.
This is one aspect of God’s nature, the infinite inhering in the specific, atomic (in every sense of that word) insights that disclose our beings and situate us in something larger than ourselves, even as they cast us back into brute reality—the daily responsibilities of caring for a child or the modulations of marriage, the terror and tedium of ongoing illness, or simply the hollow sound of your own voice attempting to pray. I suppose it is possible to knit a kind of spiritual life together out of these moments, for they do restore one’s links to and with the earth; they do propel one forward into time and connections. For me, though, there is something too inchoate and sporadic to such a spiritual life: a devotion that hinges only on these rare intensities begins to seem, for me, like a discipline of memory. An essential discipline; yes, but one that makes Being seem mostly in abeyance and life a long wait for God, who is knowable only in emotional extremity, and only then by a sort of tender oblivion.
“To believe in God is a practical matter, faith a physical act renewed (or not) at every moment.”
Back to Weil. If part of what she encourages is implicit and passive, a letting go of our mind’s most developed capacities in order to realize our mind’s further capacities, another part—indeed the first part—is explicit and all action: “We must believe in the real God in every way.” There are many ways to interpret this, of course, and religious factions will be fighting to the end of days over who exactly the “real God” is. For Weil, though, one thing is clear: to believe in God is a practical matter, faith a physical act renewed (or not) at every moment.
For all the intensity of our meditative moments, for all the necessity of “mystical” experiences that can never quite be translated into the terms of ordinary life, until our faith is rooted in and inextricable from our daily reality, those moments and experiences are as likely to wreck as to rescue us, because we cannot live up to them: they indict the mildness with which we drift through our days. The greatest mystery of those moments in our lives is that, in a way, there is no mystery: that is to say, the immense, ungraspable, mystical reality that overwhelms us is also the concrete, suffering, sometimes all-too-touchable face right in front of our eyes.
From: My Bright Abyss