Spirit of Prayer

Readings and resources in the Spirit of Prayer—
Communing with God, others and self



I was first caught by this concept, "abysses", while I was reading Leanne Payne's Restoring the Christian Soul. She wrote about the abyss of nonbeing—the root cause of all existential anxiety, that ever-feared and ever-present spectre of the possibility of the complete and utter negation of the human soul. Then I began to notice the use of the same word in the writings of other authors. From ancient days, through the middle ages to the present, counselors and sages have been using this concept: the image of the chasmic void—the infinitely deep and wide abyss to describe spiritual and psychological realities.
     Even in the beginning, or infinitely close to the beginning (the second sentence of the book of Genesis), we find that the earth was "without form and void" with "darkness over the surface of the deep". The image is one of a sort of cosmic emptiness and infinite deepness that cries out for infilling, organization, illumination. Then God responds to this great void by filling it with light, creation-wide light (some think) and then, soon after (maybe after an infinitely short epoch of time) by creating another gulf-the separation of light from darkness: another abyss. Could it be that such chasmic voids, spiritual and psychological, cosmic and relational, are inherent to the nature of creation? and could it be that, in order to infill or span such voids, it may be necessary to face still others, remedial and healing, paradoxical and confounding? I believe we find ourselves in a universe of abysses. If we look towards heaven or earth, if we ponder our relationships with other people or our own deep heart, if we face the incongruency of reality without turning away we find abysses-and miraculous abysses of infinite abysses. Joseph Perry © Greyfort Publishing.

One: The Abyss of Infinite Nearness

     I thought to myself that I had a great quote for the beginning of this chapter, "He is closer to me than I am to myself", but where did I read it? So I began to search my quote files for the source. I thought it was Traherne so I clicked on the Meditations and searched for the words "closer" and "my self" (Traherne always wrote myself as two words.). I didn't find it so I went to John of Ruysbroeck next. I thought, maybe it is "nearer", not "closer". So I included more synonyms in the search. Here is the first one I found:

"Now the grace of God . . . flows from within, and not from without; for God is more inward to us than we are to ourselves, and His inward thrust or working within us, be it natural or supernatural, is nearer to us and more intimate to us, than our own working is." The Adornment of Spiritual Marriage. Book 2, Chapter 3.

Ruysbroeck was Flemish and lived in the thirteenth century. I copied and pasted the quote and kept looking, wordsearching through Evelyn Underhill's great book, Mysticism. She quoted Meister Eckhart, a sixteenth century German mystic:

"God," says Eckhart, "is nearer to me than I am to myself; He is just as near to wood and stone, but they do not know it."Mysticism, from chapter five.
"God is near us, but we are far from Him, God is within, we are without, God is at home, we are in the far country," said Meister Eckhart, struggling to express the nature of this "intelligible where." Ibid., from chapter six.

Those were great so I pasted them too, but it didn't sound just like the one I had in mind. So I kept looking—through all my quote files till I had a bunch of them, all to the point that God is closer to me than I am to myself. Witness: Thomas Merton, Paul Tillich, Josef Pieper. Merton wrote in The New Man that, not only is God close to us but, "that is why we do not notice Him".(The New Man. New York: The Noonday Press, Copyright, 1961 by the Abbey of Gethsemani. page 138.) Could He be so close to me that I cannot focus on Him? Or is He so inward in my being that I cannot possibly perceive His Presence, as I cannot perceive the presence of my liver or my spleen in my body? Pieper held that the supernatural energy that powers the life of the Christian comes from the very life of God, "who is closer and more intimate to us than we are to ourselves." Even the existentialist theologian Paul Tillich emphasized the paradox of praying to God as "thou", that is, as the ultimate other—all the time knowing that He is "nearer to the I than the I is to itself", so that the utmost other is the utmost intimate.
     Next I turned to my concordances. My search words would be: heart, wicked, near. I found this, the word of the Lord to Samuel: ". . . man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7) and these words of God, which He spoke to Jeremiah: "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways" (Jeremiah 17:9). Those passages show us that there is a gap between the heart of man and the consciousness of man. They show us we don't easily come to know the content or character of our own heart, that our outer self is disenfranchised from our inner self and from our Creator. Here is a passage from a Psalm of David:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139: 23, 24)

Why did King David have to petition God, who was apparently far away, to discern his own inner motivations and to reveal to him, whose thoughts should have been available to him without reflection, his own very private thoughts as if they were inaccessible to him—as if they were enclosed in a "locked box" to which he didn't have the key? This should not be hard for us to accept since we know from the second book of Samuel, chapter twelve, that David at one point had deceived himself so completely that he required a mediator, in this case a prophet of God, to re-connect him with the depths of his own inner reality. Nathan came to him, sent by God, to respectfully but firmly uncover his inner thoughts and to connect, by means of a parable, his outer, public acts with his unseen and unacknowledged sins of attitude. He repented. I think he knew, and probably had always known, that there was a great gulf, an unbridgeable gap between himself and himself, and he knew that he must look to God to bring healing and reconciliation even within his own divided being.
     I was forcefully made conscious of the realm of the abysses of the human soul around the time I read The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard. This little book, translated from Danish by Walter Lowrie, came at the right time in my life. I found it at a time when, through circumstances that were at first completely under my control (but at last completely out of my control), I had become a victim of the lies and pretenses of others and, due to my own vulnerability and lack of experience, I found myself experiencing the abysses of deep personal and interpersonal impossibility. I found myself having to ask: "Who are these people who feel that they have to lie to themselves and to me?" and, "Who am I, that I should be divided asunder, in pain, confusion and bitterness?" I remember confiding in a close friend that I felt God was "injection-mining" my soul— me with His living water, scorching and steaming, forcing up all the bad stuff, into the light of day. Yet with the bad came the good stuff, too. With the dark shadows came "memories" of beauty and preciousness. I had to face the fact that I didn't know myself and, by the mercy of God, I had to begin to walk toward the light (and dark) of self-knowledge and knowledge of God.
     Like I said, Kierkegaard came at the right time in my life. He showed, by fantastic arguments, both mathematically exact and poetically beautiful, that the soul of man is a relationship and that the many ways the soul is sick correspond to the many ways and forms in which the soul is broken away from relationship with itself and with the Creator who made it. Kierkegaard proved that the despair that plagues humanity, both corporate and individual, is the result of this broken relationship and that the healing of that sickness comes only by faith in God—by faith-relationship to God. The apostle Paul, in Romans 10:17 shows that, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ". By interpreting Kierkegaard in this light we see that the word of Christ shows us, respectfully but firmly, our inner disrelation and alienation, and makes us confront and reckon with our own despair, so that we will see well enough to know that we must reach up to God and call out, "Save me. I want to believe!"
     This is where I find myself: I am related intimately to myself ; the very fabric of my being is so created that I cannot get rid of myself or get away from myself. My deep heart or psyche is always present, never sleeping or slumbering; if I fall asleep still my inner man lives on in my dreams and visions of the night. But at the same time I am alienated from myself; my dreams are like strange movies made by some unknown filmmaker from somewhere far away and I wonder what I can do to cut the cable from this troublesome broadcaster. But it is coming from within me, from an unacceptable inner man who is a stranger to me; Who let this guy into my head? I don't think he is even related to me. And that is not the only problem I have. I also have the problem with my relationship to God. How can I say He is infinitely near to myself, infinitely nearer to my self than I? It seems just the opposite; it seems God is infinitely far away from me, infinitely high and set apart.
     The answer is, He is far. He is infinitely high and lifted up. He is holy and his holiness sets Him apart from us, so that we cannot even think of touching Him. Though we yearn for His love and His goodness, even weep with grief at the memory of the hope we once glimpsed, still He is far away and we are alone. How can we cross over?
     There is a bridge between infinitely near and infinitely far, between immanent and transcendent, There is a Way to span the gulf between "within" and "without". It is the focal point of history in time and space. It closed the gap between shameful uncleanness and white-hot holiness. It is the Cross of Christ. Because Christ bridged the chasm in His life and in His death and because He has shared that life and death with all humankind, we do have a crossing. And in starting forward in that Way we see that it is not just a bridge but is also another abyss, infinitely deep and wide: the abyss of God's Love.
     I did find the passage from Thomas Traherne's Meditations and it did not disappoint me. Traherne loved infiniteness. He loved descibing that which could not be described. In his second book of meditations he showed that we humans, in the earliest perceptions of our infancy, knew infinity before we ever knew boundaries. We knew inwardly the boundlessness of God's creation before we ever learned the boundaries and bondages that would press in upon us as we grew older and "wiser." The things of this world—the contingent things, the anxious pressures—we learn by our senses.

But infinity we know and feel by our souls . . . for God is there, and more near to us than we are to ourselves. So that we cannot feel our souls, but we must feel Him, in that first of properties, infinite space. Traherne. The Second Century, no. 81.

© Joseph Perry. Greyfort Publishing.

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And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a first-born.
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