It’s really hard to feel nourished by a church service, at least mostly the ones I attend – it’s often thin gruel for spiritual feeding but there is perhaps an occasional glimpse, a hint. Sometimes it might be a moment of light coming through the window, or the particular lilt of a hymn or the spaciousness of the high ceiling. However I can’t think of a recent sermon where I heard something that as the Quaker George Fox used to say ‘speaks to my condition’. So the searching continues for me and often I can find something in the writing or the experiences of another that can inspire and encourage ‘my condition’. I’ve just come across some ideas by the philosopher and poet Glenn Hughes and in particular his work looking at the poetry of Emily Dickinson and her spirituality.
First of all I very much liked Hughes’ exploration of the ‘beyond’ or as some write it the ‘Beyond’; this is the ‘beyond’ of divine transcendence which isn’t about something spatially out there or something or someplace far, far, away but rather this is the reality understood to be beyond spatial and temporal conditions, which place it, as the mystics say, both ‘everywhere and nowhere’. This is unpacked by appreciating that this is both mysteriously and divinely constitutive (meaning forming a part) of finite consciousness and the world, and also in some mysterious way entirely other – entirely different from all that we humans can conceive of finite consciousness and world.
The poet by their use of words as symbols evokes our mythic consciousness and so reawakens in us the search for the experiences that constitute meaning. This is our need to recover the truth of our existence, the ‘more than’ materialism and the limitations of science, the truth that lies in the in-between of time and eternity, immanence and transcendence.
Take this poem by Emily Dickinson which Glenn Hughes sees as conveying both the immediacy of divine presence and her use of words such as ‘infinite’ as symbols for a divine beyond. This is the dimension of timeless meaning transcending anything we can experience or know in consciousness. The wonderful phrase ‘the uncertain certainty’ confirms that we can never truly claim to possess or know it from our situation in the ‘in-between’.
Of Paradise’ existence
All we know
Is the uncertain certainty –
But it’s vicinity, infer,
By its Bisecting Messenger –
The Infinite a sudden Guest
Has been assumed to be –
But how can that stupendous come
which never went away?
Thus we know of eternal being, of ‘Paradise’, only because divine presence condescends to ‘bisect’ our worldly consciousness, inducing our longing for the divine mystery…